Henry Hill: Sturgeon is trapped between her activists and voters who aren’t interested in independence

16 Jun

If the measure of a politician is their ability to consistently secure rewards completely out of line with their material achievements, then Nicola Sturgeon is a very able politician indeed.

Despite not managing to replicate Alex Salmond’s overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, she has nonetheless managed to maintain the SNP’s hegemonic grip on politics north of the border despite its woeful record of actually governing.

And she has done this by successfully keeping the separatist movement united under her own party and its quasi-autonomous foederati, the Greens, despite making no progress towards independence whilst in office.

The First Minister might be a true believer in independence, but she’s also a realist. It won’t have escaped her notice that the needle of public opinion hasn’t moved on breaking up the United Kingdom, both ‘despite Brexit’ and having the deeply unpopular Boris Johnson presiding in Downing Street.

And whilst the ‘Yes movement’ managed to come out of the last referendum campaign much stronger than it went into it, the experience of the Quebecois sovereigntist movement suggests a second defeat would be much more damaging. So she doesn’t want to risk one.

But if that’s the case, why has she marched her soldiers up this hill, again, by once against launching a ‘push’ for another vote?

Well, the Nationalists can’t afford to park independence either. First, because a big chunk of their activists would defect, and a lot of their voters might start flirting with other parties or staying at home.

Second, because once you decisively take independence off the table for a while there is nothing to talk about but your domestic record. This column sometimes does extended tours of the sheer volume of bad stories coming out of Scotland. Just this week we have another for the pile: a major report suggests the SNP’s handling of care homes during the pandemic ‘likely led to deaths’.

The SNP don’t want to talk about that. Or schools. Or the NHS. Let alone the long-delayed ferries. They want to talk about independence. So here we are.

As it is, this latest push looks like something of a paper tiger. The Nationalists have not solved any of the major economic holes in the case for separation, and have been reduced to cherry-picking international examples and trying to wish away Scotland’s substantial public spending deficit.

Likewise, Sturgeon has not yet formally requested the powers she needs from Westminster to conduct a legal vote. Whilst some separatists would certainly be up for holding an illegal one, it would be boycotted by unionists and command no international legitimacy, so it would be an unlikely move for a First Minister who has, until now at least, resisted the zoomer wing of her party.

For its part, the Government should deny her the set-piece battle she clearly craves. Polite refusal to authorise a second vote should be partnered with additional scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s various domestic woes, and ministers in London should otherwise get on with the day job.

Why would the DUP take Johnson at his word?

The Government’s new strategy for the Northern Irish Protocol is not landing as badly with the Party as we might have expected. Moderate and legally-informed voices, such as Robert Buckland on this site, have come down on the side of action. Criticism has been relatively muted.

However, there does seem to be at least one landmine Liz Truss and the Cabinet might step on: the Democratic Unionists.

Yesterday, the Times reported that the Government has issued with the DUP with an ultimatum:

“Ministers have warned unionists in Northern Ireland that they must make a “clear public commitment” to re-enter power sharing with Sinn Fein before the government proceeds any further with its Brexit bill.”

There are two problems with this. The first is simply that, given the Prime Minister’s record on Northern Ireland and the sea border, the DUP can be forgiven for doubting that the Government will proceed with this controversial legislation in the event that things in the Province settle down.

But the more serious point is that the threat undermines Truss’s legal argument. As I noted the other day, the Government is invoking the ‘doctrine of necessity’ to justify using legislation to override an international law commitment. The basis of necessity is that urgent action is needed to protect a country’s essential interests, in this case the Belfast Agreement.

Does it not undermine the argument that the new Bill is urgently needed if ministers can threaten to just pause it until the DUP fall into line?

The post Henry Hill: Sturgeon is trapped between her activists and voters who aren’t interested in independence first appeared on Conservative Home.

Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie

8 Jun

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

While Westminster reels from the result of the Prime Minister’s vote of confidence, the SNP continues to add to its litany of shambolic policy failures north of the border.

Whether it’s the £150 million debacle over the Scottish census; the scrapping of the party’s flagship pledge to close the education attainment gap between rich and poor by 2026; the endless accusations of corruption and sleaze; the ferry fiasco and the chaos of the Scotrail nationalisation; the horrific drug death toll that shows no signs of easing; chilling legislation on hate crimes; and the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would make legal gender a matter of ‘self-identification’, the SNP has got the big things so terribly, terribly wrong.

One flagship policy the First Minister used to be oh so keen to shout about is minimum unit pricing – in her words, one of the “major achievements” of devolution, and an area in which Scotland has shown “leadership”. The World Health Organisation praised Scotland for its “promising” policy. Yesterday, however, Public Health Scotland published its final report evaluating its impact, and it made for sober reading.

The SNP first attempted to implement this nanny state policy in 2012. After several years of legal challenges, and a landmark legal victory in 2017, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce this form of price controls.

At the time, the First Minister said she was “absolutely delighted” that minimum pricing was upheld by the Supreme Court; she noted that while “no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics…it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health”.

In 2019, it was looking good for Sturgeon, when it was reported that ‘Scottish alcohol sales at lowest level in 25 years after price controls’. Little was made of the fact that these figures were totally disingenuous – namely because they referred to 2018, when the policy had only been in forced for eight months. Of course, Nicola didn’t let this get in the way of a good headline, tweeting “this is an encouraging first indicator of the impact of minimum unit pricing”.

Subsequent evidence has not been so “encouraging”. In 2021, a report by the National Institute for Health Research for Public Health Scotland revealed a disturbing 17 per cent increase in alcohol deaths in 2020 on the previous year. There was also no evidence of reduced alcohol consumption.

Now, this week, Public Health Scotland has released its final report into the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland on those drinking at harmful levels.

If minimum unit pricing was having its desired effect, you’d expect to see a drop in alcohol-related harms. Instead, you see no such thing. The official evaluation has found no evidence that harmful drinks have reduced their alcohol consumption or experienced any health benefits. Instead, many of them have switched from cider to spirits – vodka, in particular – and there are reports of increased levels of intoxication and violence from family members.

Even more damning, heavy drinkers have not turned away from the bottle as the public health lobby and the SNP suggested they would. Instead, they’ve chosen to cut down on essentials, including food and utilities, and borrow more money, than cut down on the booze. As the authors note, ‘reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort’

With inflation rising, it is highly likely that this policy will push vulnerable groups into further financial strain. Of course, for some, including the Liberal Democrats (liberal in name only), this is simply a reason to raise the rate from 50 to 65p as Willie Rennie MP told the First Minister last year – a policy the First Minister is yet to rule out.

As Alex Salmond accurately said, the First Minister likes to use independence as “political shield” to deflect voters’ attention from her government’s failures. So far, Sturgeon has chosen to remain silent on the bombshell evaluation of one of her flagship policies, but the catastrophic inadequacies of her administration are plain to see.

The post Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie first appeared on Conservative Home.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon abandons her flagship schools pledge as she touts separation in the US

19 May

At the end of last month, we stopped by to take an overview of the many and varied scandals and failures besetting the Scottish Government.

Unfortunately, none of this was sufficient to prevent the SNP winning a record haul in this month’s local elections. Devolution seems to have created an unhappy dynamic where electoral success and quality of governance have decoupled.

Still, amidst acres of Protocol discourse let’s check in and see how the Nationalists are faring now the elections are out of the way.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Scottish Government has formally abandoned its mission to close the attainment gap between rich school pupils and poor by 2026.

In a move which has been described as “a betrayal of Scotland’s children”, the Nationalists’ education secretary announced that the “arbitrary date” could no longer be met.

Bear in mind, Nicola Sturgeon first made her grand promise on school outcomes in 2016. By 2026, the SNP will have had a full decade to deliver on it – and that’s only if you exclude the five years they had a majority after the 2011 election and the four years they led a minority government before that.

Yet a party which claims it could set up an independent Scottish state in a matter of years, it turns out, has decided it won’t be able to deliver better school outcomes after almost 20 years in power.

Doubtless the First Minister is now rather less keen on voters taking her up on her call for pupil performance to be the yardstick by which voters measured her success. Not that they seem inclined to do so.

In the meantime, Sturgeon has been getting down to her actual priority: independence. On a trip to the United States to drum up support for separation, the First Minister claimed the war in Ukraine strengthened her conviction that an independent Scotland would join NATO.

This question continues to divide the separatist movement. The Greens came out against it immediately, and even the more pragmatic Nationalists have yet to overcome their party’s historic antipathy to nuclear weapons. Potential NATO partner are unlikely to be impressed by a prospective member seeking to shelter under the allied nuclear umbrella whilst shuttering Faslane.

Dissent in the ranks?

This morning, the News Letter reported on a fiery meeting of the Northern Irish Conservatives in which both Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis were criticised for the lack of any central support by local activists.

Although the national leadership was defended by Matthew Robinson, who was the sole Tory candidate in this month’s Assembly elections, other members of the Ulster party have got in touch to set out their case against CCHQ:

“Apparently when the local Party has appealed for support from the leadership the Party centrally has demanded that they activists raise £100,000 of funding before even an article can appear from the Prime Minister in the local media supporting their endeavours.

“Likewise, it is apparently not possible for the PM or the Chancellor to appear at a Party event in NI to help raise profile and funds until the local party guarantees funds to the Party centrally. This is surely somewhat of a chicken and egg situation?”

Furthermore, members in Wales report “unconfirmed “rumours that Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, “may be about to try and separate the Welsh party from the UK one”, launching the process at this weekend’s Welsh Conference. So that’s something to keep an eye on.

Ian Smart: Scotland and the next election. The Tory trap that Johnson is preparing for Starmer may not work.

11 May

Ian Smart is a lawyer and blogger who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1974.

On the 28th of March 1979, the Labour Government led by Jim Callaghan lost a vote of confidence by a single vote, triggering a general election which will no doubt be of very fond memory to those of my readers old enough to remember it.

Most however will have largely forgotten exactly how that election came about. But not in Scotland we haven’t.

At the previous October 1974 General Election, the SNP had achieved their then-best ever result, returning eleven of Scotland’s (then) seventy-one MPs. Almost as significantly they were the second party, behind the Tories or Labour in just about every other seat in Scotland.

Opinion polling indicated that had there been an election in 1976 or 1977, they might well have secured a majority of Scotland’s seats.

They had got themselves here by, in electoral terms, being a sort of super-Liberal Democrats: all the localism, plus the added factor of a flag. If you wanted to oust a Tory incumbent (then more bits then than you might think) in bits of Scotland where Labour wasn’t really challenging locally, then you could vote SNP.

More worryingly for my own party, who then bestrode Scottish politics, the same thing happened where the Tories weren’t contenders. And we had much more to lose.

But underlying this there was still an assumption among the electorate that the SNP were ultimately (like, dare I say it, the pre 2010 Liberal Democrats) an anti-Tory party.

So let us return to the 28th of March 1979.

On the 1st of March there had been the first devolution referendum. A narrow majority had voted for the creation of (what would then have been) a Scottish Assembly.

But this still counted as a loss, thanks to a provision that victory required at least 40 per cent of the electorate voting Yes. This was introduced to the Bill by George Cunningham, a Labour MP, and passed because of support from a significant number of other Labour MPs also voting against their own Government.

And the extremely narrow and ultimately inadequate margin of victory for ‘Yes’, which pre campaign had been assumed to be a shoo-in result, was because many of the most prominent No campaigners had been from the Scottish Labour Party: Robin Cook, Brian Wilson, and, probably most famously, Tam Dalyell.

So, suffice to say, post-referendum relations between Labour and the SNP, never good, were at a long-term low. When Callaghan announced that he couldn’t simply ignore the 40 per cent rule, the Nationalists lost the plot and put down a vote of no confidence.

Margaret Thatcher, spotting the moment, took it over. By-elections had long since deprived Callaghan of an absolute majority and, all attempts to cobble one together having failed, the Tories, with the support of all eleven SNP MPs, won the vote. The rest is history.

What happened next is why this little history lesson holds a vital lesson for today’s Labour leadership – and a warning for Conservatives who complacently assume they will be able to re-run their brutally effective ‘Vote Miliband, Get Salmond’ campaign from 2015 at the next election.

The 1979 election is engraved in the hearts of Scottish Nationalists. They lost nine of their eleven seats, holding one of the others only by a whisker (and then because Labour, perhaps not entirely wisely, fielded a candidate who had only recently left the Communist Party).

More significantly still, Thatcher got down to the job.

The 1980s should have been a golden era for the SNP: the spectre of permanent Tory rule; their deep hostility to devolution; and a raft of policies which were not, to put it mildly, universally popular in Scotland.

But their efforts to capitalise on it were hamstrung by the fact, which Labour never stopped pointing out, that the Conservatives were only in power because the Nationalists had put them there.

The Nationalists simply could not get a hearing and at the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections there was no speculation as to whether they would gain seats, only whether they would even keep the two they had.

Even the very minor revival, to six seats, they enjoyed in !997 was very much in the undertow of the Blair landslide in parts of rural Scotland which even the maestro could not reach and on the clear understanding that the SNP would never again vote to bring down a Labour government.

That understanding remains to this day and believe me, getting that to be formally acknowledged will be a central focus of Scottish Labour’s next general election campaign.

Now, having dealt with the past, let us deal with the future.

I don’t want to annoy my readership here so I will only say that if you were a betting man or woman you might think the current most likely outcome of the next general election is a Labour plurality but without an overall majority. It is certainly much more difficult for us to win without Scotland.

But you see we would have Scotland whether we win there or not. For the SNP could never vote to bring down a Labour Government, even less so if the alternative were saving Boris Johnson’s bacon. If they did, they would pretty much lose all their seats (again).

This means that come the campaign, Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t need to offer the Nationalists “radical federalism” or indeed anything else. For what, in the event of a hung parliament, could they possibly do? If we’re far enough ahead in England and Wales they might just be able to abstain on our Queen’s speech but, if not, they’d just have to vote for it.

In 2015, Ed Miliband could not escape the trap the Tories dug for him in part because he couldn’t admit in advance that his party was about to get crushed in Scotland. Starmer has no need to hide from the facts, and this means he can take a very clear line on how he will conduct himself in the event of a hung Parliament.

This helps him both ways both ways. In England and Wales, we can rebut any suggestion by the Conservatives that Starmer would sign up to a deal which either undermined the Union or saw the Nationalists getting lots of extra cash when voters all over the country are grappling with the cost-of-living crisis.

And if the SNP object, Scottish Labour can pin them down on the question of whether or not they would support his Queen’s Speech.

That puts Sturgeon in a tricky spot: either she says her MPs will back it without conditions, disarming the Tory trap in England, or she sends left-of-centre voters in Scotland a clear signal that Nationalist MPs might stop Labour booting Boris Johnson out.

She won’t want to do that. The SNP haven’t forgotten 1979 – or what happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015. So if the Tories are waiting for Starmer to play into Johnson’s hands on this, I suspect they’ll be sadly disappointed..

Henry Hill: As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, the DUP is fighting for second

5 May

As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).

Henry Hill: Another litany of SNP failures – when will Westminster dare to take back control?

28 Apr

Another week, another set of stories which reveal how just how badly the Scottish National Party is fairing as an actual government without the white heat of an independence campaign to distract everybody.

First, Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to deny that her administration has engaged in a cover-up after admitting that it had misplaced key documents regarding the awarding of a disastrous ferry contract, according to the Herald.

Glasgow-based Ferguson Marine, tasked with delivering two new vessels to serve Scotland’s island communities, has both wildly overshot its deadline – they were due in 2018 and are expected in 2023 – and seen the overall cost of the project rise by over 150 per cent.

The Scottish Government has also had to save it from administration. Stephen Daisley has a good account of the scandal, including the mind-boggling detail that the First Minister actually ‘launched’ one of these (still-unfinished) ships way back in 2017.

Now the Scottish Daily Express reports that the police could be called in after Jack McConnell, a former First Minister, suggested the ministers may have broken freedom of information laws.

And in the meantime, residents of the Scottish isles will continue to be lumbered with substandard connexions to the mainland – not that their Nationalist MPs will have anything to say about it.

It also means the Scottish Government has to send ferry contracts overseas, opening it up to fresh attacks from the breathtakingly shameless Alex Salmond.

Connoisseurs of SNP scandals will likely be put in mind of the Alex Salmond scandal, where time and again the Scottish Government claimed to have provided all relevant documents before having more dragged out of it (if you want more detail, I recommend the very readable Break-Up).

And this isn’t even the only business scandal to beset Sturgeon and her ministers this week. According to the Scotsman, the Scottish Government may have breached state aid rules after offering a company a £586m guarantee in exchange for just £162m in securities. (If you don’t have a subscription, Conor Matchett has the top lines here.)

Just as with Ferguson Marine, this venture was undertaken to prop up one of the remnants of Scotland’s heavy-industrial heyday, in this case the Lochaber smelter; the latest revelations apparently come on the day Liberty Steel’s offices, in Scotland and elsewhere, were raided by the Serious Fraud Office.

There was also another defeat over documents after the Scottish Government lost a freedom-of-information battle over the legal advice it has received on the question of a second referendum on independence.

And we must not forget that this morning, the Nationalists had to abandon the deadline for the census in Scotland after hundreds of thousands of people had not filled it in. There seem to be a lot of potential reasons for this (none good), but either way it will have serious consequences for state policy which uses the data.

The Telegraph points out that this fiasco also calls into question the wisdom of the SNP’s decision to delay conducting the census by a year (apart from the obvious reason of furthering their strategy of ‘data divergence’ by breaking up a vital UK-wide dataset, of course).

Anything else… oh yes: the Scottish Sun reports that the SNP are under renewed pressure over their care homes scandal after the policy of discharging untested or Covid-positive patients into care homes was ruled unlawful in England. I think that’s it for this week.

This litany of failures raises once again the question of when the Government will accept that Westminster should play a stronger role in ensuring accountability and upholding good government in every part of the country.

One doesn’t have to be a die-hard devosceptic to see that there is a very strong case for the census, the foundation stone of any country’s national statistics and a vital basis for policy, should be conducted on a national basis. Even in countries such as Canada, where the provinces actually have their own statistical authorities, there aren’t multiple censuses.

Perhaps this will be a deviation from the historic way of doing things; certainly that is what those who keep insisting the United Kingdom is a ‘Union state’ will claim.

But even so, there is a very clear difference between a harmless bureaucratic oddity in a system overseen by one government and having a devolved government controlled by separatists actively determining the timing and the wording.

Likewise, given that British money is redistributed round the UK via the Barnett Formula, why shouldn’t the Government be prepared to step in when it is grossly misspent – at the very least, to set up a proper, independent inquiry into what happened with those ferry contracts?

And given all these disasters in areas for which the Scottish Government is actually responsible, it might well give proper consideration to a Bill being drafted by a Labour peer which would give the Treasury a veto over devolved spending in non-devolved areas.

…oh and before you go, there was one fun little example of SNP incompetence I missed: here’s Euan McColm describing the unfortunate moment a Nationalist politician was required to think on his feet after the MSP meant to open a debate didn’t turn up:

“What followed was excruciatingly embarrassing. Coffey stood and, displaying a breathtaking inability to think on his feet, proceeded to deliver his closing speech. He giggled as he described a debate that had not yet taken place.”

I mean Jesus.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon dodges police action for mask breach and faces calls to suspend MPs

21 Apr

Last week, this column looked at allegations that Nicola Sturgeon was acting in a ‘Trumpian’ manner after she banned awkward print journalists from the launch of the SNP’s local election campaign.

We also highlighted an excellent recent piece in the Spectator which explored the ways in which the Nationalists have used their long grip on Holyrood to increasingly suborn the civil service and civil society north of the border.

This week saw yet another example of the close relationship between the SNP and the institutions they rule over after the First Minister was caught in breach of her own rules on masks.

Yet despite the high-profile investigation into Downing Street, which has already seen the Prime Minister issued a Fixed Penalty Notice with the prospect of more to follow, there were no consequences for Sturgeon: Police Scotland decided not to take action.

That at least can be justified as an independent operational decision. Perhaps more serious are the claims, reported in the Herald, that the National Clinical Director has been “blurring the lines between ministers and government officials” in his defence of the First Minister.

After Professor Jason Leitch explained on the radio that her face had been uncovered for “a matter of seconds”, the Scottish Conservatives pointed out that it wasn’t his place, as a civil servant, to be offering defences of Sturgeon’s conduct.

Kenny Farquharson, no dyed-in-the-wool unionist, has written that the First Minister ought to resign after being caught breaking her own rules – perhaps especially since she insisted on maintaining mask mandates long after they had been abandoned in England.

But as Guido points out, neither the Scottish or (in the case of Mark Drakeford’s breach) the Welsh police have decided to take action.

In other bad news for the SNP, there are big questions after it emerged that the outgoing CEO of Scotland’s £2bn publicly-owned investment bank was paid off to the tune of £117,500 – six months’ salary – rather than working out her notice. Ministers have come under fire for a lack of explanation after Eilidh Mactaggart resigned at the end of January, apparently for personal reasons.

The Nationalists have also been caught in their own sleaze scandal after Westminster authorities upheld complaints against two SNP MPs.  According to the Daily Telegraph, the party is facing calls to suspend Patrick Grady, the party’s former chief whip, and Patricia Gibson, a frontbencher, over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Even if the SNP decide not to act, there could still be consequences. The Times reports:

“The result of the investigation by Westminster authorities has been referred to an independent expert panel, which can recommend suspension or expulsion from the House. The SNP will also have to decide whether to take any other disciplinary action of its own against the pair.”

Back to the Protocol

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, has made headlines by reiterating to a committee of MPs that the Government has the right to unilaterally overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol in the event that the European Union don’t agree to reform it.

According to the FT, he said that “The United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement we have with any foreign power. That must be the case”.

However, he refused to be drawn on the specifics of the Government’s plans, which will do nothing to allay the concerns of cynics that it is once again having one of its intermittent bouts of tough talk, few of which have resulted in serious action.

It is worth noting though that unilateral action does not necessarily mean a ‘big bang’ approach such as triggering Article 16 or ‘tearing up’ the agreement entirely.

The Government’s tactic of indefinitely extending so-called ‘grace periods’ – originally intended to allow Northern Irish businesses to find EU alternatives to their British suppliers – has been very effective; despite lots of initial bluster, it has not blown up the talks.

Ministers can also now point to the long operation of the grace periods and fairly ask the EU for evidence of the feared market distortions which are supposed to justify them.

There is no doubt that the United Kingdom could, in principle as the sovereign power, resile from the Protocol. Whether the political will exists to do so is a completely different question.

Henry Hill: Tories attack other parties for propping up SNP councils as local campaign heats up

14 Apr

Liberal Democrats ‘open’ to pact with Tories to oust Nats in Edinburgh

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has said that his party could support an “alliance” with the Conservatives to take control of Edinburgh Council.

The Daily Record reports that whilst he won’t ban local Lib Dem groups from reaching agreements with the SNP, he has ruled out propped up “failing” Nationalist leadership in the capital and in Glasgow.

As the local election campaigns head up, the Tories are trying to highlight examples of other parties collaborating with the Nationalists in order to try and solidify the pro-UK vote behind themselves.

Earlier this week, Ruth Davidson claimed that Labour councillors would “help” their Nationalist counterparts nod through controversial diktats from Bute House, pointing out that the party is in coalition with the SNP on six councils.

This prompted both Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, to speak out against formal coalitions with Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

Starmer in particular will be wary of the Conservatives reviving their very effective 2015 campaign against Ed Miliband, which painted a picture of a minority Labour government in the pocket of Alex Salmond.

And speaking of the SNP…

First Minister likened to Trump after barring press from campaign launch

Scottish print media are up in arms after Sturgeon barred them from the launch of the Nationalists’ local election campaign. According to the Scotsman, only broadcasters such as the BBC and STV welcome at what an SNP spokesman branded “not a typical launch event”.

This decision is especially baffling in light of one detail unearthed as part of an excellent recent investigation into the Nationalists’ ‘secret state’ by the Spectator:

“The Scottish government’s 175 communications staff dwarf the BBC’s 34 reporters, meaning that even the publicly funded broadcasters have one person asking questions for every five who answer them. Remarkably, the bill for Holyrood’s press officers and special advisers has increased by 50 per cent since 2018, despite newspaper sales halving since the SNP came to power.”

Nor is Scotland the only part of the kingdom suffering for Westminster’s hands-off approach to the devolved territories – as I noted in the Critic, Northern Ireland is paying a heavy price for successive governments’ refusal to take responsibility for good government in the Province.

In other news, a member of the First Minister’s cabinet has likened opponents of gender self-ID laws to antisemites. Lorna Slater, a member of the Scottish Greens whom Sturgeon brought into government last year, alleged opponents of her plans were funded by “certain right-wing American groups”.

The First Minister is also set to increase Scotland’s constitutional divergence from the rest of the United Kingdom by giving 16-year-olds the right to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament.

Henry Hill: Kwarteng is wrong to rule out ‘imposing’ nuclear power stations in Scotland

7 Apr

“It is a devolved affair, that is up to people in Edinburgh to decide what their nuclear policy is.”

Thus spake Kwasi Kwarteng when asked whether Scotland would play its proper part in the Government’s proposals for a new generation of British nuclear power stations. Instead, all eight will be built in England and Wales.

Assuming they get built at all, of course. Because the Business Secretary’s reluctance to build in the face of local opposition is not merely owed to the unfortunate state of devolution.

Challenged on Radio 4 about other aspects of the energy strategy, such as wind farms, he offered the following:

“So unlike other countries, we can’t simply impose infrastructure on people if they don’t want it and that’s a really important democratic principle.”

Except it isn’t. The ability of a (democratically-elected!) central government to impose decisions reflects the facts that many things of great benefit to the nation impose local costs; if you give local communities a veto, vital infrastructure doesn’t get built and we’re all poorer for it.

In this case, Scotland will benefit as much as the rest of the UK from greater British energy security. It should therefore play its full part in delivering it, including through the construction of nuclear plants.

Unfortunately, the Government and its predecessors have instead given the SNP free rein to indulge their unscientific antipathy to one of the best sources of clean energy we have – and likely free-ride on the British solution being delivered elsewhere. Energy should not be devolved.

At least it hasn’t given them a veto on North Sea oil and gas production, which is set for a boost.

Tories fielding highest-ever number of candidates in Wales, but fighting just half of seats

Today Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, announced today that the Party will be contesting more seats than ever before at next month’s local election.

According to the BBC, there will be 669 Tories on the ballot paper in May. Yet whilst an improvement, this still means that overall the Party is contesting just over 54 per cent of the available seats, versus 49 per cent in 2017.

The overall figures also contain very wide regional variation. According to figures seen by ConservativeHome, the Conservatives a fielding a full slate in just six of the 22 local authorities; they are contesting fewer than 20 per cent of available seats in another six.

Local sources say that it is often simply difficult to find sufficient candidates when every seat is being contested at once. But there are also more obvious challenges. In Flintshire, where the Tories are fighting only 20 per cent of available seats, they think it would have been very different without the scandals surrounding Rob Roberts, the MP for Delyn, and the hairs-breadth miss of Alyn and Deeside in 2019.

Scottish Tories back trans conversion therapy ban

Douglas Ross and Boris Johnson have enjoyed something of a rapprochement in recent weeks. Having previously sent a letter to Sir Graham Brady, the Scottish Tory leader now believes the Prime Minister should remain in post even in the event that he is fined over ‘partygate’.

But that doesn’t mean the party in Scotland isn’t looking for opportunities to put some clear blue water between the two, and this week they announced that they will not follow Johnson’s u-turn on conversion therapy in trans cases.

The Scotsman reports the party’s gender reform spokesperson as saying:

“As our manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election made clear, we are in favour of a ban on the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy.

“We continue to support a ban on conversion therapy, including trans conversion therapy, and we will vote for that ban if the legislation comes through the Scottish Parliament.”

The Government has backed off the ban in trans cases because of concerns that it would hinder professionals from properly probing cases where children claim to have gender dysphoria but may not.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson discredits Blackford by embracing him as a friend

30 Mar

“He is, like me, a living testament to the benefits of moderation in all things.” What a tricky opponent Boris Johnson is. He set out to show the world that he and Ian Blackford, to whom this remark was addressed, are on such cordial terms that light-hearted references to their struggles with their weight are in order.

Nothing could be more damaging to Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster, than to be exposed as a friend of the Prime Minister.

Johnson is not popular in Scotland. SNP activists live in hope that the Prime Minister may arouse such antipathy north of the border that their cause triumphs.

But what if affable, comfortable, companionable Scots such as Blackford instead indicate, by their demeanour, that when they come down to London they rather enjoy the Prime Minister’s company, and even find it preferable, as well one might, to that of the most embittered and distrustful cybernats?

Blackford did his best. He accused Johnson of last night throwing a “champagne bash” for Tory MPs just as millions of families were worrying how they will manage to pay “the £700 energy price hike”.

Johnson refused to be riled. His manner indicated that he regards Blackford with fond amusement.

What now is Blackford to do? For the angrier he sounds, the more amused Johnson will be, and the more inclined to show he knows Blackford is only pretending.

Sir Keir Starmer, for Labour, began well, with a short and pointed question: “Does the Prime Minister still think he and the Chancellor are tax-cutting Conservatives?”

Rishi Sunak, who was sitting beside Johnson, smiled, but it was the smile of a bruised man, pained by the denunciations in the last week of him and his Spring Statement.

Quite soon, Johnson was being genial at Sir Keir’s expense: “I don’t know where he’s been for the last two years.” How extraordinary that Sir Keir could have managed “to obliterate the biggest pandemic for the last century from his memory”.

A derisive remark, yet not delivered in a mean-spirited tone. Johnson was robust, genial, almost amused by “this human weathervane” who one week thought the Prime Minister should stay in office but the next week wanted him to go.

What a cunning adversary Johnson is. For if one turns up the volume of one’s attack, one may start to sound rather vicious and lacking in sense of proportion, while there he is, magnanimous and moderate, refusing to take it personally, altogether, perhaps, a more enjoyable person with whom to have a drink or two afterwards in the pub.

Matt Western (Lab, Warwick and Leamington) had a convoluted crack at the Chancellor, “so out of touch he’s contactless”.

Johnson replied in a friendly tone that “much as I admire his style”, the question would work better “as a light essay in The Guardian“.

What lack of rancour! Even references to the Downing Street parties did not spoil his mood. One might as well try to get Bertie Wooster to take a dim view of that beano last night at the Drones Club.