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Westlake Legal Group > Scottish Conservatives

Henry Hill: SDLP link-up with Fianna Fail has a rocky start as senior MLA quits

SDLP ‘on back foot’ after senior resignation over merger

The alliance between the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s smaller and more moderate nationalist party, and Fianna Fail suffered a blow this week when the former’s most high-profile MLA resigned.

Clare Hanna, the SDLP’s Brexit spokeswoman, resigned from its Assembly group (although not her actual party membership) after a special conference on Saturday approved the new ‘policy partnership’ with the Republic party, the News Letter reports.

She said that: “I remain unconvinced that an exclusive partnership with Fianna Fáil is the right vehicle to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

SDLP members backed the proposal at the conference, although 30 per cent voted against it. There apparently remains a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the new relationship entails, with senior figures being coy as to whether it would mean a joint manifesto or similar.

Hanna may not be the last to leave: Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, was reportedly warned that a group of members were “considering their options” after the link-up was approved.

In other Irish nationalist news, Sinn Fein have reiterated their belief that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Mary Lou McDonald described such a vote as a “democratic necessity” in the event that Britain left the EU without the backstop in place – but declined to say when a referendum should be held.

Writing on this site today, David Shiels has warned ministers that by talking up the prospect of a border poll – in a bid to shepherd unionist MPs behind Theresa May’s withdrawal deal – they are playing into the hands of the republicans.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, continues to insist that such a Brexit can be avoided – even has he refused to negotiate with the Prime Minister during her visit to Dublin earlier this week. However Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, did meet with his Irish counterpart on that Friday, as well as meeting separately with senior figures from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP Brexit spokesman, has had to insist this week that his party remains united in its opposition to the backstop. The News Letter reports that Arlene Foster had earlier refused to be drawn on whether or not she was still demanding its complete abandonment.

Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax

Teachers have announced that they will demand compensation out of public funds if they are subject to the Scottish Government’s new car park tax – in a move the Tories estimate could cost £1.7 million in Edinburgh alone.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this move by the unions comes as part of a growing public backlash against the proposals, which would see charges levied on private car parks such as those operated by businesses and other places of work.

There was also outrage when it was revealed that such a tax is liable for VAT if the cost is passed on to employees, pushing the cost to workers up to around £500 per year.

Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, accepted an amendment tabled by the Scottish Greens introducing the levy in order to win their support for his budget, which could not have passed without them.

Opposition parties have also this week criticised Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, for talking up the prospect of independence whilst on an official trade trip to the United States.

This prompted Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, to urge the Government to re-assert its prerogatives over foreign affairs and start attaching conditions to the Scottish Government’s use of public funds outwith its remit. Probably too much to hope after ministers’ foolish retreat over post-Brexit devolved powers, but definitely a good idea for a bolder, more imaginative leadership to consider.

In other news, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly declared victory in their campaign to stop Boris Johnson becoming Tory leader. I wrote about the significance of ‘Operation Arse’ earlier this week.

Labour AM apologises for ‘unacceptable’ comments about Jews

Jenny Rathbone, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, has apologised and been issued a formal warning over “unacceptable” comments she made about Jewish communities.

Wales Online reports that the Cardiff Central AM said it was “really uncomfortable” how certain security-conscious synagogues now resemble ‘fortresses’, and that “siege mentalities” might be driving this change. She will now undergo antisemitism training by the Community Security Trust.

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister, is apparently trying to ease out Wales’ most senior civil servant in order to get a “fresh start”.

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Conservatives should take their Scottish colleagues’ fears about Johnson seriously

On Saturday, the Scotsman ran a story about the Scottish Conservatives’ campaign – which has been declared a success – to thwart Boris Johnson’s ambitions to lead the Party.

According to the paper, Scots Tories have mounted a “whispering campaign” of behind-the-scenes lobbying to persuade their parliamentary colleagues that the former Mayor would do serious damage to the Party’s prospects north of the border.

This assertion is apparently based on private polling, but whilst YouGov still reports Johnson as the most popular Tory with their respondents the idea that he might not play well in Scotland doesn’t seem hard to credit. That Ruth Davidson greatly dislikes him won’t have helped, either.

And yet… it remains the case that he is apparently amongst the most popular Conservative politicians in the country. YouGov’s data reinforces the findings of our own monthly survey, which finds Johnson comfortably ahead in our “Who should be leader after May?” question – although as we acknowledge, this may simply reflect that stasis has set in now that the Prime Minister’s position as leader is secure for the time being.

Since we must still assume that Johnson would at the very least be a contender for the leadership if he made it to the membership vote, the Scottish Conservatives’ focusing their efforts on persuading MPs makes sense.

But whilst ‘Operation Arse’ may have been declared a success, it would be extremely presumptuous to rule Johnson out of the running whilst the timing and circumstances of the next leadership election remain completely unknown. Which poses a question for both him and his supporters: how much does is matter that the Scottish Tories think he’d be a disaster?

It certainly ought to matter, and not just for principled unionist reasons. The Government has only held onto office because of the Conservative rebound in Scotland at the last election – a rebound brought about by people who stuck with the Party through two very lean decades indeed, some of whom have suggested they would not stick with it through a Johnson premiership. Winning a majority at the next election will require broadening the Tory tent, not shrinking it.

Nor should we forget that, with Labour in the doldrums, Davidson’s Conservatives are the principle bulwark against the SNP’s ongoing drive to break up our country. Brexit may so far have discredited the idea of the ‘fragile Union’, but that’s no excuse to risk handing Nicola Sturgeon the Holyrood majority she’d need to mount another push in the 2020s.

The Scottish Conservatives’ deep reservations about Johnson aren’t new. Yet if he’s made any effort to reach out to Scottish colleagues, or to tackle his negative impression amongst Scottish voters, both we and they have missed it. And that, perhaps more even than his actual unpopularity in Scotland, is a problem.

With both the membership and MP selectorate overwhelmingly English, it would be relatively easy come the next leadership contest for the concerns of the Scottish party to be marginalised. But the Tories owe it to both the country and their own political interests to choose a leader both willing and able to reach out beyond the faithful. If Johnson is still that candidate, he should prove it.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: Trimble raises over £10,000 for legal challenge to the backstop

Architect of the Belfast Agreement rallies support for challenge as UUP call for direct rule

The News Letter reports that Lord Trimble, the Northern Irish peer who helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement, has managed to raise more than £10,000 to mount a legal challenge against the mooted ‘backstop’.

An appeal by the “informal group” supporting his efforts has apparently elicited a strong response, backed by an online crowdfunding effort.

Trimble, who served as First Minister of the Province whilst leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, backed Brexit and has been a public opponent of the Government’s approach to Northern Irish issues during the Brexit negotiations – particularly its habit of giving false credence to Dublin’s assertions that the Agreement required an invisible border.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the legal basis for the challenge is set out in this Policy Exchange paper from Lord Bew, who also set out his thinking in the News Letter  and on this website.

Outside Trimble’s circle there is a great deal of scepticism about his case’s chances of success. However, that one of the two men who won the Nobel Prize for the Belfast Agreement felt moved to take this step illustrates once again the depth and breadth of political unionism’s opposition to Dublin’s demands in the Brexit negotiations.

All of this comes in a week when the Democratic Unionists sent out their own, somewhat contradictory signals over the backstop.

Whilst the Financial Times reported that Arlene Foster was hinting at ‘flexibility’ over making a deal work, Sammy Wilson – the DUP’s Brexit spokesman and most vocal Brexiteer – declared that the party would vote against “any” backstop proposal.

He added that Eurosceptics had been “surprised and annoyed” when the Prime Minister used a speech in Belfast to reiterate her commitment to the backstop – in the same week that the Times reported Angela Merkel’s intention to try to pressure the Irish Government into softening its own stance. Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg told a DUP meeting that even a no-deal departure need not require a hard border.

In commentary this week, Ben Lowry claimed that it was a “massive failure of civic unionism” that the backstop got so far with so little criticism; Henry Newman set out 12 reasons the backstop makes “no sense at all”; and Eilis O’Hanlon alleged that Ireland was in the “grip of Anglophobia“.

Labour vote against SNP-led inquiry into Salmond

Scottish Labour yesterday voted against plans for a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the botched handling of the allegations against Alex Salmond – because the Nationalists would lead it.

The Guardian reports that under Holyrood’s rules the SNP is entitled to chair the next committee established, and that Nicola Sturgeon has declined the option of relinquishing control. Moreover, she has appointed to it four ex-ministers who served in her predecessor’s administration.

In an attempt to reassure MSPs and regain cross-party support, the Nationalists highlighted that one of these, Linda Fabiani, is currently Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. But despite voting for the proposals alongside the Liberal Democrats and Greens, the Conservatives insisted that they would still prefer the governing party to cede the leadership of it to another group.

Elsewhere this week Derek Mackay, the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary, insisted that his party was united around a controversial new parking tax he included in his budget to win the support of the Scottish Greens, after a Nationalist MSP had to perform a very public u-turn on the subject. Earlier this week business leaders said that they had been “humiliated” and “dismayed” by the raft of new tax measures the left-wing, separatist-inclined party had managed to extract from the Scottish Government.

Ulster Unionists call for direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has said that Theresa May must introduce proper direct rule over Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal departure from the European Union, according to the News Letter.

The North Antrim MLA said that the Province would require “political leadership and direction” to navigate the challenges posed by such a scenario. He added that the Prime Minister had apparently been extremely reluctant at their meeting to discuss progress towards restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.

Ulster has been run by its civil service, operating on effective autopilot and without direct political accountability, since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017.

Karen Bradley has been criticised for saying that getting the devolved institutions back on their feet was her “top priority” despite the dearth of any pro-active efforts by the British Government to do so.

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Henry Hill: The Salmond-Sturgeon standoff is costing the SNP their cohesion at a crucial moment

Last week this column led on the unfolding drama wracking the Scottish National Party after Alex Salmond mounted a successful legal challenge against the Scottish Government led by his party.

The court upheld the former First Minister’s complaint that an official inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct, levelled against him by two female civil servants, was unfairly skewed against him. Lord Pentland ruled that it had been “procedurally unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”.

Now Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor, finds herself having to handle not one, not two, but three investigations into issues surrounding the botched inquiry, conduct amidst a deepening rift between her supporters and those of her predecessor.

First, the First Minister has acquiesced to demands from opposition parties that she submit herself for investigation over whether or not she has breached the Ministerial Code. Second, MSPs at Holyrood are to hold their own inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the investigation of complaints against Salmond. Third, the Information Commissioner’s Office have passed a complaint from Salmond about the initial leak of the Scottish Government inquiry to their criminal investigations desk.

Add in the Scottish Government’s own inquiry into how it so mishandled the investigation into Salmond, and the oft-overshadowed Police Scotland investigation into the original allegations against the former First Minister, and you have a total of five.

The root of the scandal is the fact that Sturgeon held a series of off-the-record meetings with Salmond, without officials present, after the allegations had been lodged against him and whilst the investigation was underway, in what opposition parties have called an “astounding lapse in judgement“. Fresh evidence suggests that the role of Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s chief of staff, will shortly be in the spotlight too.

Another issue, and the one which caused the inquiry against Salmond to be ruled unlawful, is that one of the investigating officers had counselling both of the complainants, a clear conflict of interest. The subsequent court defeat cost Scottish taxpayers £500,000, and as the relevant appointment was made by Leslie Evans, Scotland’s top civil servant, there is mounting pressure on her to step aside.

Meanwhile relations between the two leading Nationalist politicians of their generation are getting worse by the day. First Salmond’s supporters warned of a ‘conspiracy’ against him and claimed that Lloyd tried to use the allegations to dissuade him from standing for election.

Sturgeon, for her part, has accused her former mentor of waging a “smear campaign” against her. Exasperation with Salmond amongst her supporters has been mounting since he lost his Gordon seat at the 2017 general election, after which he took a controversial talk show slot on RT which was widely considered to bring him – and by association, the Nationalist cause – into disrepute.

Jim Sillars, the former SNP deputy leader, has warned that the party is paying the price for allowing cults of personality to build up around both Salmond and Sturgeon during their times as first minister. The result is that the Nationalists, who usually operate with phalanx-like discipline and total command from the centre, are losing cohesion at just the moment when another opportunity to revive their push for independence might (only might) have been possible.

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Henry Hill: Sturgeon under fire after Salmond wins case against her government

Sturgeon humiliated as Salmond wins case against her Government

Nicola Sturgeon is under mounting pressure to reveal the details of private conversations she had with Alex Salmond about allegations of sexual harassment against him, the reports.

This comes after the First Minister was forced to issue a “humiliating apology” after her predecessor won a legal challenge to the way the Scottish Government had handled the complaints. The Telegraph reports:

“The judge Lord Pentland ruled the inquiry was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” after it emerged the investigating officer had “prior involvement” with the women before they complained.”

As a result of what Salmond calls the “abject surrender” of the Scottish Government he has been awarded costs, which apparently run to £500,000. He has also demanded that Leslie Evans, Sturgeon’s seniormost civil servant, resign. The Scotsman reports that Evans has apologised but has no plans to quit, and that the First Minister has given the mandarin her support. The Timesdedicated an editorial has to calling for Evans’ scalp, accusing her of “an egregious lapse of judgement”.

Jackson Carlaw, the interim leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has announced that the Tories are going to push for a committee of the Scottish Parliament to investigate why Sturgeon met with Salmond five times, including two at her home in Glasgow, whilst insisting that she had not interfered in the investigation. She has also now admitted to not informing the Permanent Secretary about at least one of these.

Welsh and Scottish Labour re-admit anti-Semites

Not the biggest stories of the week, but in light of Rachel Riley’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn for “sharing a bed with holocaust deniers and virulent anti-Semites”, two stories this week serve as an unhappy reminder of how far through Labour this problem runs.

First, the BBC reports that a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly has been re-admitted to the party after having made “offensive” remarks about Jews, despite the fact that the party has not yet concluded its investigation into the incident. Jenny Rathbone apparently suggested that the security fears of the congregation of a Cardiff synagogue could be “in their own heads”.

She also said she was “uncomfortable” with synagogues turning into “fortresses”, adding that a “siege mentality” probably played a significant role. Michael Rose, the Chief Rabbi, branded the remarks “extremely offensive”.

Meanwhile in Scotland the Jewish Chronicle reports that Labour have re-admitted a councillor who directly peddled an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Mary Bain Lockart claimed that a joint front page by the UK’s three main Jewish newspapers – organised to signal the strength of feeling about antisemitism in the Labour Party – was a Mossad plot to discredit Corbyn.

An ex-Labour MP who originally complained about the post said the decision to re-admit Lockart illustrated that Labour was not a safe space for the Jewish community.

Fianna Fail and SDLP propose merger

Northern Ireland’s smaller, more moderate nationalist party is looking to merge with one of the major parties in the Republic of Ireland in a bid to inject some life into the flagging alternative to Sinn Fein.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which was Ulster’s pre-eminent nationalist party during the Troubles until it was eclipsed – along with its unionist counterpart, the Ulster Unionists – by the rise of the DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly, is reportedly preparing to subsume itself into Fianna Fail, long deemed the Republic’s ‘natural party of government’.

According to the Irish Times the proposal would result in “one all-island party which will be called Fianna Fáil” – which has prompted Margaret Ritchie, a former SDLP leader and Member of Parliament, to say on the record how much she would regret the disappearance of her party’s distinct brand and identity.

Lord Empey, who as leader of the Ulster Unionists led his party into their ill-fated alliance with the Conservatives at the 2010 general election, warned Colum Eastwood, the SDLP’s current leader, that he might be ushering in the “obliteration” of his party. It’s internal coalition might fracture and only a smaller part of its already waning vote and membership end up inside Fianna Fail’s tent.

In other Irish news, new polling suggests that Irish people believe that the backstop will make a ‘united Ireland’ more likely – which perhaps explains why the DUP continue to believe Theresa May’s deal poses a greater threat to the Union than ‘no deal’.

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