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Westlake Legal Group > Scottish Conservatives

Henry Hill: Hunt and Johnson declare Backstop ‘dead’ and promise to protect Ulster veterans

Hunt and Johnson declare backstop ‘dead’

Both candidates for the leadership have confirmed that they will not sign up to the Northern Irish backstop, the Guardian reports.

In a quite striking hardening of position, both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt insisted that the mechanism could play no part in any deal between the UK and the EU – even if it were amended to include a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism, which Eurosceptics had previously indicated they might accept. Johnson went so far as to say that the backstop had been “devised by this country as an instrument of our own incarceration in the single market and customs union”.

Hunt, on the other hand, appeared to tee himself up for failure by saying: “If we are going to get a deal we must have an absolute cast-iron commitment to the Republic of Ireland that we will not have border infrastructure.” The decision to rule out any infrastructure whatsoever – to maintain a so-called ‘invisible border’ – is the root problem with the backstop. If an alternative mechanism for doing so (in a manner compatible with British territorial integrity) existed, the backstop would be a non-issue.

Since the EU has repeatedly ruled out re-opening the deal, blanket refusal on the backstop would put both candidates on track for a no-deal departure. Whilst this might not be the preferred option for Hunt, a strong line on Northern Ireland is undoubtedly necessary if either candidate wishes to maintain the Party’s working relationship with the DUP and the Government’s wafer-thin Commons majority.

In other news, both Johnson and Hunt have expressed support for measures aimed at protecting ex-servicemen who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution and historical tribunals. They have both signed a ‘Veterans’ Pledge’ organised by the Sun, which this week criticised Theresa May for her continued refusal to protect those who fought the IRA.

Meanwhile an SNP MSP has claimed that Ruth Davidson’s authority inside the Scottish Conservatives has been “shredded” after a growing number of her colleagues endorsed Johnson’s leadership bid. The contest has previously put a spotlight on the limits of her influence after the Scottish Tory leader endorsed Sajid Javid, only for none of the party’s 13 Scottish MPs to follow her lead.

Bebb to stand down over Brexit

Whilst the grassroots may not yet have managed to deselect a sitting Conservative MP over their stance on Europe, this week saw the latest indication of how Brexit might be redrawing the frontiers of the Tory ‘big tent’.

Guto Bebb, the arch-Europhile who represents the Welsh constituency of Aberconwy since 2010, has announced that he will not seek re-selection for the seat at the next election. This means another Tory-held Welsh seat (after Montgomeryshire) will be selecting a new candidate.

Bebb, who prior to joining the Conservatives was a member of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, accused the Party of tacking towards the “type of nationalism” – which he claimed was ‘English nationalism’ behind the rise of UKIP and the Brexit Party. He has ruled out rejoining Plaid.

This departure puts a spotlight on an awkward question facing both leadership candidates (Bebb could not bring himself to vote for either one). Whilst CCHQ has thus far taken a strong line against deselecting Tory MPs, it is an unavoidable fact that the Party can’t fight a general election intended to break the deadlock on Brexit with candidates who are opposed to the Government’s policy on the same. If Johnson were to seek a mandate for no deal, what does he do about the likes of Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, and David Gauke?

Bradley criticised over rushing Northern Irish legislation

Last week, I wrote about now Westminster’s decision to legislate on abortion and same-sex marriage had set a useful precedent for the DUP in their ongoing push to introduce full direct rule to the Province.

This week Sam McBride has written in the News Letter about how the episode highlights the ongoing flaws in Karen Bradley’s approach to governing Ulster (to the minimum possible extent she can get away with). The Secretary of State continues to use Commons procedures intended for unexpected events or emergencies to fast-track Northern Irish legislation through the Commons with minimal scrutiny, even when circumstances do not require it.

He explains how sloppy drafting by Stella Creasy, the Labour MP behind the abortion amendment, has left the Government with what might be an impossible task: introducing new regulations by an October deadline it cannot meet.

It has been a hallmark of Bradley’s ill-starred tenure at the Northern Irish Office that she has poured her efforts into hiding both from Parliamentary scrutiny and from the difficult decisions the ongoing failure of devolution poses for Westminster. Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that he would keep her in post was by far the most bizarre of his leadership campaign, and one must hope Johnson pays sufficient interest to the NIO to give it a much-needed shake-up.

News in Brief:

  • Ireland’s ma in Brussels says border checks can be avoided in no-deal exit – Belfast Telegraph
  • Assembly Members have paid their families huge sums – Wales Online
  • Lord Trimble’s daughter in same-sex marriage – News Letter
  • ‘Neverendum’ killing investment in Scotland – The Times
  • The Welsh Government’s legislative agenda – Wales Online
  • Unionists fear land grabs if Northern Ireland joins Republic – The Guardian

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Henry Hill: Westminster legislating for Northern Ireland sets a useful precedent for the DUP

DUP accepts Westminster changing abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

Sam McBride writes for the Independent that the Government’s parliamentary allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, show no sign of causing ministers much difficulty over the Commons legislating for the Province on social issues.

Although the socially-conservative party is formally opposed to extending same-sex marriage or legal abortion to Ulster, in truth many of its modernisers will be quietly pleased that these particular boils have been lanced without the Party having to risk alienating its core support by being directly involved.

Moreover, as I explained in last week’s column, the DUP will also be very pleased that MPs have blown such a large hole in the Government’s increasingly threadbare case for refusing to introduce wholesale direct rule. Just about the only remaining justification for the Northern Irish Office’s current non-solution of letting the civil service govern Northern Ireland without democratic oversight has been the relative consistency with which ministers have stuck to it.

Now that Parliament has acted directly to take important decisions in the absence of a devolved administration (and the passage of these amendments means that it is now certain not to return before their October 21 deadline, as doing so could block the reforms), it will be much harder to justify refusing to step in again. Noted unionist blogger Owen Polley has set out in a piece for the Article some areas which could do with ministerial attention.

However John Larkin, the Northern Irish Attorney General, has raised concerns about the drafting of the abortion amendment, drafted by Stella Creasy and overwhelmingly passed by MPs, according to the News Letter. He reportedly feels that it is “is unclear and inconsistent with important human rights texts”. Lord Duncan, an NIO minister, appears to share his concerns and has hinted that the Government may try to push back the deadline.

By contrast to their relative quiescence on these issues, the DUP have not been shy about naming their price in other areas. This week Nigel Dodds, the leader of the party’s Westminster group, indicated that they were rowing behind the Sun’s campaign on behalf of veterans and would make policies for ex-servicemen and women part of the next confidence and supply deal. Unionist concern at the handling of so-called ‘legacy investigations’ into soldiers remains high.

Hunt urges Johnson to rule out more powers for Holyrood…

The Herald reports that Jeremy Hunt has called on Boris Johnson to ‘draw a line under devolution’ and rule out any new tax powers for the Scottish Parliament, in the same week that he himself pledged not to approve a second referendum on Scottish independence even in the event of a separatist majority at the 2021 Holyrood elections.

Amidst reports that the underdog is hoping to run up a “big win” north of the border, where local Tories are reportedly deeply wary of what a Johnson premiership might been for their political recovery, a story resurfaced that Johnson once asked Nicola Sturgeon if full fiscal autonomy – a confederal arrangement wherein Scotland would have its own Treasury – would “buy off” the SNP.

This comes in the same week that Lord Forsyth, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and far-sighted opponent of devolution, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the real threat to the Union lay in constantly giving the nationalists and devocrats more powers. Stephen Daisley also penned a magisterial piece (for which I even got a little credit) for the Scottish Daily Mail on the same theme – it has been a good week for devosceptics.

…as First Minister of Wales picks new fight on ‘devolved powers’…

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the strongly-nationalist but technically-Labour First Minister of Wales, has attacked both candidates’ plans to replace EU funding with a UK-operated Shared Prosperity Fund.

Drakeford, who has stated that he views the UK as essentially a non-sovereign confederation, claims that Johnson’s intention for there to be a “strong Conservative influence” over the funding contradicts Labour’s motto of “Not a penny lost, not a power stolen” by suggesting a shift in power back towards London, the BBC reports.

This would, of course, be a very good thing, and entirely in line with the aims of Theresa May’s legacy-building devolution inquiry of finding ways to enhance the role of the British Government in the devolved territories. Neither Johnson nor Hunt should flinch from taking Drakeford – who has declared his party’s support for the UK to be ‘conditional’ – head-on.

…and Lidington and Mundell warn of danger to Union

On the other side of the argument, David Lidington warned this week that English ‘apathy’ about the United Kingdom risked breaking it up. According to the Times, he said:

“In England, I think that there is an indifference to the Union; a sense of taking it for granted. It is something that is there as part of the landscape rather than something that you’ve really got to make a conscious effort to work to sustain.”

David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, also warned that a no-deal exit might strengthen the hand of the separatists in Scotland and Northern Ireland – even as his son Oliver, an MSP, has endorsed Johnson on this site on the basis that he will “deliver Brexit and secure the Union”.

Johnson has pledged this week to prioritise keeping the UK together over Brexit, although we must stress again that on the available evidence that isn’t the choice.

News in Brief:

  • Barclay warns that no-deal exit will harm Ireland more than the UK – Daily Telegraph
  • Dublin admits it will impose border checks under a no-deal scenario – The Sun
  • Reality intrudes on the Irish Government’s Brexit game plan – Irish Times
  • Johnson pledges £160 million ‘back payments’ to Scottish farmers – Daily Telegraph
  • SNP MP has made citizens’ assembly ‘ten times harder’, says adviser – The Herald
  • Davidson lashes out at Labour for letting unions set its Brexit policy – Daily Express

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John Lamont: Contrary to the SNP’s expectations, the closer we get to Brexit, the more popular the Union becomes

John Lamont is MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and is a member of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. This article is from the latest edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, Centre Write.

Like many people across the UK, it took me some time to digest the news that broke on the morning of 24th June 2016. Whatever side of the argument you were on, the result of the EU referendum was a surprise to most people.

However, one person in the UK wasted no time to jump on the vote, so sure was she of the implications. As soon as the result had been declared, Nicola Sturgeon hastily called a press conference at Bute House, her official Edinburgh residence. She stood in front of assembled media and declared that a second referendum on Scottish independence was now firmly back on the table, asserting that Scots were so outraged about leaving the EU they would now want to leave the UK. Her political calculation was that she would be able to exploit the fact that the majority of Scots voted to Remain to get her flagging campaign to break up Britain back up and running.

This press conference has set the tone for the political debate in Scotland since. The SNP have time and time again confidently asserted that Brexit makes Scottish independence much more likely. At every available opportunity they have sought to utilise Brexit to argue the only option is to leave the UK. It is almost a weekly occurrence for the First Minister or one of her senior Ministers to repeat that Brexit makes Scottish independence a sure thing.

After the EU referendum, a re-energised SNP embarked on a nationwide campaign to sell their new independence message. They commissioned a so-called ‘Growth Commission’, led by Andrew Wilson, the economist, to refresh the hugely discredited economic case for leaving the UK which Scots rejected in 2014.

Given the First Minister’s confidence, an outside observer might be led to conclude that Scottish independence is a likely outcome of Brexit. But three years on from that Bute House press conference, that is not how things have turned out.

Poll after poll shows that support for Scottish independence is actually falling, despite the SNP’s best efforts. One of the most recent, commissioned by Angus Robertson, a former SNP MP,  showed support for the Union is up to 62 per cent. At a time when the political establishment in the UK is consumed by Brexit and the nationalists are focused entirely on independence, support for the SNP’s cause is falling, not rising.

The SNP’s ‘Growth Commission’ came back with the conclusion that leaving the UK would result in an extra ten years of austerity, far beyond anything the UK Government has imposed, and it has now been quietly shelved by the SNP leadership.

And in 2017, the First Minister’s impulsive reaction to Brexit resulted in her losing a third of her MPs, including Alex Salmond and Robertson, both to Scottish Conservatives like myself campaigning against another independence referendum. The closer we get to Brexit, the more support for independence falls.

The SNP clearly miscalculated that Brexit would push people towards independence. So, why are Scots still backing the United Kingdom? There are, in my mind, two main reasons.

First, many independence supporters actually want to leave the EU. The SNP kept a tight lid on them during the EU referendum, but since then, senior figures such as Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, have vocally supported leaving the EU. A NatCen report found that over a third of SNP voters backed Brexit.

This makes sense; pro-Brexit Scottish nationalists are at least consistent. Why would you campaign for Holyrood to have more powers, only to want to hand large parts of them back to Brussels? The impact of the SNP’s posturing on Brexit has been that many of these voters have stopped supporting independence.

The second reason that support for independence is falling is that most Scots are, to use a good Scottish phrase, scunnered by the endless constitutional debate. The vast majority of my constituents, whether they voted Leave or Remain, just want Brexit to happen so we can talk about something else. And the last thing they want their politicians to be focusing on is another debate about breaking up the United Kingdom.

If Brexit has shown us anything it is that leaving a political union is challenging. And because the UK is a market worth four times more to Scottish businesses than the EU, Brexit would look like a walk in the park compared to leaving the UK. And unlike with the EU, Scotland is a significant net beneficiary from the UK, meaning independence would result in an instant hit to public finances, even if trade was miraculously left unaffected.

Time and time again I listen to speeches from SNP Members of Parliament outlining how damaging leaving the EU would be for Scotland. Yet, in the same breath, they argue in favour of leaving the United Kingdom. Unpicking more than 300 years’ worth of political, economic and fiscal union would be a huge undertaking, much more substantial than Brexit. So people look back on the SNP’s claim in 2014 that independence could be negotiated and delivered in 18 months and realise that this was complete nonsense. In many ways, Brexit makes the argument for leaving the UK much weaker and that is something the SNP leadership misjudged back in 2016.

Most Scots continue to support remaining part of the UK, but that could change. The SNP should not be underestimated. They have an army of highly motivated volunteers and everything their politicians do is designed to try to boost support for independence.

While we must continue to highlight the weaknesses of the SNP’s argument, the focus for politicians who want the UK to survive and thrive must be on showing Scots how they benefit from remaining part of the UK.

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Henry Hill: Johnson and Hunt woo DUP as leadership roadshow hits Belfast

Leadership contenders woo DUP…

It is difficult to to think of the last time Northern Ireland – and more specifically, Northern Irish politicians – have been so central to the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party. Perhaps not since Bonar Law.

Although they didn’t get to vote in the early rounds of the contest, the ten Democratic Unionist MPs nonetheless have clout when it comes to the Tory leadership race. Whoever wins will need to be able to maintain, and ideally strengthen, the Government’s working relationship with its Ulster allies in order to maintain any sort of majority in the House of Commons.

So this week both candidates hit the stump in Northern Ireland, with pitches both to the Province’s small but loyal band of Tory members and the DUP.

At a gathering of 240 local activists, Johnson publicly disavowed suggestions that he had ‘toyed’ with the idea of resolving the backstop by reverting to the EU’s original plan and hiving off Northern Ireland’s economic arrangements from the rest of the UK, according to the FT.

It adds that both candidates met with representatives of the DUP: Johnson with Arlene Foster, the leader, on Tuesday and Hunt with Nigel Dodds, their Westminster leader, on Monday night.

The Daily Mail also reported Johnson’s enthusiasm for the construction of a road and rail bridge connecting Ulster with the mainland. Questioned on the subject by members, he highlighted plans by Alan Dunlop, a professor of architecture. He also wrote in the paper about his plans for the Union. The Daily Express writes, meanwhile, about his ruling out any reform to the Barnett Formula.

In other news, Ruth Davidson has rebuked Johnson over his priorities, telling him the Union must be his “do-or-die” issue, amidst fresh reports of Scottish Conservative unease about his premiership. Katy Balls suggests that these could keep the Tories out of power, whilst Jacob Rees-Mogg argues that Johnson will stop the EU ‘corroding’ the Union.

Party faces clashes with allies on same-sex marriage and abortion

In light of the above, both Hunt and Johnson will need to think carefully about how they handle two issues which, after months of can-kicking by Karen Bradley, threaten to come to ahead as the stalemate over restoring devolution drags on.

The first is same-sex marriage. Patrick Maguire sets out in the New Statesman how a cross-party group of MPs are almost certain to legislate for Westminster to extend it to the Province in the event that Stormont is not imminently restored (chances of that: slim to none). He writes that this could push the Government into a row with the DUP – not over the decision, to which even socially conservative Unionists appear resigned at this point, but because of its implications for Ulster’s governance.

For over a year, Bradley has resisted the DUP’s calls to introduce ‘full-fat’ direct rule. Legislating on marriage from Westminster would be an act of direct rule, and shred what remains of the Government’s case for not going further.

The other possible flashpoint is abortion, with Penny Mordaunt having made the papers yesterday with a call for reform to the Province’s “appalling” laws on the issue. Abortion is completely banned in Northern Ireland. Both Hunt and Johnson have ruled out change, but the same Commons coalition pushing same-sex marriage could do the same for abortion – especially once the precedent for such acts for direct rule has been set.

May calls for review of devolution as part of legacy pitch

The Prime Minister has charged Lord Dunlop, a former Scottish Office minister, with conducting a review into devolution, the Daily Telegraph reports.

Apparently the object of this would be to assess the extent to which the current constitutional order bolsters or damages the UK, and come up with proposals for how to strengthen the role of Westminster and other British institutions in the political lives of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Current ideas include the creation of a Government-controlled ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ to replace EU grants post-Brexit, and replicating Brussels’ policy of heavily branding projects to make sure the public is aware of who paid for them.

Whether or not this review actually does the UK any good will depend in large part on the terms, which are apparently under dispute inside the Government as some push for a broad remit and others try to box Dunlop in. There is also a risk that it will end up hijacked by the devocracy and more-powers lobby and turned into just another set of demands – Nick Timothy, formerly one of May’s key advisers, was peddling this exhausted orthodoxy in today’s Telegraph.

Britain can’t afford a repeat of May’s fumbling u-turn on the devolution of repatriated EU powers. Unless Dunlop has the freedom, imagination, and courage to take the knife to devolution’s sacred cows, his review won’t help his country.

News in Brief:

  • Morgan and Hands’ panel delivers interim report on backstop – News Letter
  • Scottish Tories urge boycott of SNP’s ‘citizens’ assembly’ – The Scotsman
  • Hunt and Johnson support moves to protect Ulster veterans – The Times
  • Dugdale says Corbyn could offer Sturgeon referendum to win Commons support – The Scotsman
  • SNP beat retreat on ‘vote-killer’ gender laws – The Times
  • Scottish Government tells medical schools to admit fewer English pupils – The Scotsman

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Henry Hill: Hunt pulls Foreign Office support to Sturgeon’s separatist excursions

Hunt pulls Foreign Office support for Sturgeon to ‘protect the Union’…

The Foreign Secretary took an opportunity to burnish his unionist credentials this week when he withdrew Foreign Office support from Nicola Sturgeon’s diplomatic excursions to Brussels, the Scotsman reports.

In what the paper describes as “a major change of protocol”, Jeremy Hunt has restricted the First Minister and other devolved ministers’ ability to avail themselves of Britain’s diplomatic network and assets to set up meetings with foreign leaders.

This “will now be restricted to trips touching on “areas for which [Scottish ministers] have a devolved responsibility” and where they “avoid supporting activities intended to campaign for policies contrary to [the UK] Government’s position””, according to the paper.

Hunt has been strongly criticised for this by some politicians and commentators in both Scotland and Wales (he recently denied an official car to Mark Drakeford for similar reasons), and been accused of showing ‘disrespect for devolution’. Some have taken up the usual refrain that denying devocrats anything they want is a sure-fire way to break up Britain.

But Hunt is right to take a stand. It is absurd that the British State should actively support devolved politicians trespassing on its reserved prerogatives, especially when they’re doing so to pursue a diplomatic policy which conflicts with its own or are outright trying to win support for seceding altogether.

In fact, he might consider going further. Stephen Daisley has written scathingly about the SNP’s penchant for overseas junkets, and offered the following suggestion which might be right up the Foreign Secretary’s street:

“First, they could amend the Scotland Act to require the Scottish Government to submit for approval to the secretary of state for Scotland any proposed spending which could reasonably be construed to involve reserved matters or be otherwise ambiguous. Next, they could require that all ministerial visits outside of Scotland are signed off by the secretary of state as falling within the remit of Scottish ministers.”

Something to mull over as he hits the campaign trail in Scotland.

…as MPs criticise him for his stance on Ulster veterans

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Hunt has come under fire from a number of Tory MPs for saying that members of the security forces who served during the Troubles should be treated “the same way” as the republican terrorists they were fighting.

He argued that the peace process secured by the Belfast Agreement required the equivalent treatment of both sides, no matter how ‘difficult’ that may be.

Such a stance will do little to deflect the charge that he is continuity Theresa May. Both the Prime Minister and Karen Bradley, her hapless Northern Irish Secretary, have been strongly criticised for failing to protect ex-servicemen and Royal Ulster Constabulary officers from historical investigations and legal action.

This topic has been increasingly heated on the Conservative side since the revelation that Tony Blair’s administration had offered a de facto amnesty to hundreds of IRA ‘on-the-runs’ by issuing so-called ‘comfort letters’, one of which collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

Northern Irish cabinet post ‘hotly contested’

Conor Burns could become the first-ever Ulster-born person to be appointed Northern Irish Secretary, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

He is also a Brexiteer, a staunch unionist, and a practising Roman Catholic, which would make for a fascinating combination if he were given the opportunity to take on the role.

According to the Sun, there is fierce competition for the post, which is reportedly coveted by Gavin Williamson – the man responsible for negotiating the Government’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists.

Either candidate could give the department a much-needed shake-up. There is deep resentment in Ulster’s unionist circles at the Northern Irish Office’s high-handed and studiously neutral stance, which they feel does not adequately counterbalance the de facto support nationalists receive from Dublin.

Elsewhere Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, has called for whoever wins the leadership race to establish a dedicated Downing Street team aimed at protecting the Union.

Johnson appoints Thomson as his campaign manager in Scotland

Following the collapse of ‘Operation Arse’ – the Scottish Tories’ abortive campaign to block his path to Downing Street – Boris Johnson has finally started to build up some support amongst their parliamentary group.

Andrew Bowie, the Prime Minister’s PPS and one of the fastest-rising stars of the 2017 Scottish intake, has now endorsed him. So too has Douglas Ross, another tipped for high office, and Colin Clark, the ‘Salmond-slayer’, who has rowed in behind the front-runner after initially backing James Cleverly.

But the first to come out for him was Ross Thomson, the arch-Brexiteer MP for Aberdeen South, and he has now been appointed Johnson’s campaign manager north of the border.

He certainly has a mountain to climb. The Scottish Tories’ reservations about his candidate are apparently rooted in some private polling showing that a Johnson premiership would have a horrible impact on the party’s performance. Whilst Davidson appears to have reconciled herself to the need to make it work – which was always the logic of staying in the UK-wide party, the basis of her leadership – Johnson himself will have to work very hard to improve his standing in Scotland.

Clark, Thomson, and Ross have written in the Daily Telegraph that their man will ‘swat’ the Nationalists. That remains to be seen.

Hands and Morgan say Ulster border is soluble problem

In other news an Alternative Arrangements Commission, run by Tory MPs Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan, has concluded that a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic can be avoided using existing technology. In a report set to be published on Monday they claim that “futuristic high-tech solutions are not needed”.

This comes amidst reports that Ireland is coming under pressure from Brussels to set out its plans to maintain the border in the event of a no-deal exit. Suffice to say, the fact that Dublin is reportedly prepared to erect a border rather than compromise its position on the EU puts paid to any suggestion that London is obliged by the Belfast Agreement to do otherwise itself.

If Hands’ and Morgan’s findings are accurate they will be a fillip to Johnson, who is in the Ulster press this week saying that there are “abundant technical fixes” to the border question.

News in Brief:

  • Scottish Tories urge boycott of SNP’s ‘Citizens Assembly’ – The Herald
  • Davies selected to re-fight Brecon & Radnorshire in recall by-election – The Times
  • Foster warns both candidates that UK must leave on October 31 – Daily Express
  • Sturgeon wants no minimum vote threshold for an independence referendum – The Herald
  • Devolved ministers ‘don’t know what they’re doing’ on the economy – Wales Online

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Henry Hill: This week’s polling highlights devolution’s threat to the Union

Polling raises questions about grassroots support for the Union

By far the biggest Union-related story this week, at least as far as the Conservatives are concerned, is some new polling from YouGov.

It suggests that a majority of Tory members would consider the break-up of the United Kingdom a price worth paying for delivering Brexit.

According to the figures published by the Times Scotland, members they surveyed would choose Brexit over retaining either Scotland or Northern Ireland by margins close to two-to-one.

Now, there are questions we can ask about this finding. Matt Singh, the polling expert behind Number Cruncher Politics, suggests that a highly-engaged audience such as party activists may be more likely to consciously exaggerate their position to ‘send a message’.

But the headline figures are nonetheless troubling, and their significance is not diminished by opportunistic pearl-clutching from Remainer ‘unionists’ who are happy to pray in aid of the integrity of the UK… except when it contradicts their narrative.

Personally, the two people I think have got closest to the underlying drivers are Kevin Hague and Stephen Bush. Hague, probably rightly, chalked the findings up as a “big win for the SNP’s strategy of making Scotland’s voice in the UK sound like that of false-grievance mongering dicks”.

Bush, meanwhile, spotted this:

I think this tangibility point is true in two senses. The first is that, yes, Conservative activists have good reason to doubt at this point that Brexit will dissolve the country. The ‘myth of the fragile Union’, wherein the break-up of Britain is threatened by politicians and commentators in pursuit of other things (usually “more powers”) remains busted. The ‘knife at the throat’ looks blunt and rubbery – not that this will stop the likes of Carwyn Jones pushing this line for all they’re worth.

But it is also the case that, after two decades of continual devolution, the Union simply feels less tangible in our day-to-day lives. A vast and still-growing sphere of national life is now siloed away, and the devocrats continue to strive to replace what British-level contact remains with wrangling between devolved administrations or parliamentary ‘blocs’.

This has always been one of the biggest problems with the whole ‘devo-max’ idea. If you tell one part of the country that maximal devolution plus full fiscal transfers represents “the best of both worlds”, your implicit argument is that the only good thing about the Union is the cash.

Such an approach has an obvious problem, in that it requires those parts of the Union from which said fiscal transfers currently flow either not to think about it or, if they do, to adopt a much more existential (and therefore, highly asymmetrical) attitude towards the UK. Quite why the transparently mercenary attitude of the devo-maxers should engender such depth of feeling is, shall we say, non-obvious.

These figures show that Scottish Conservative MPs are right to insist that the next Prime Minister must make a priority of saving the Union. But they also hint at the uncomfortable truth that doing so will involve slaughtering devolution’s sacred cows – a herd those same MPs have been only too keen to defend in the recent past.

Are they ready to do that? Perhaps Adams Tomkins is. The fact that Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservative MPs have not (as some hoped) walked out of the Party over the prospect of a Johnson also suggests that old-fashioned devocrat politics is losing ground to the harder, but infinitely more valuable, challenge of making a genuinely British politics work. We live in hope.

News in Brief:

  • Brecon and Radnorshire recall petition closes today – The Guardian
  • Davidson warns against pact with the Brexit Party… – Daily Telegraph
  • …as no Scottish MPs backed Javid despite her endorsement – New Statesman
  • Bradley can’t get Stormont parties to turn up for free booze – BBC
  • BBC’s new Scottish channel a dismal failure as some shows pull zero viewers – The Scotsman

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Henry Hill: Davidson endorses Javid as Johnson and Hunt polish unionist credentials

Davidson endorses Javid…

Undoubtedly the biggest item of the week, from the perspective of this temporarily leadership-focused column, was Ruth Davidson’s decision to endorse Sajid Javid’s bid to succeed Theresa May.

In an interview for the BBC, she explains that she thinks he has the most credible and deliverable strategy for Brexit whilst highlighting why the Scottish Tories might be wary of competitors such as Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom.

Whilst this might strike some as a surprising choice, since Davidson has established herself as firmly on the left of the UK-wide party and there are certainly options less dry than abolish-the-top-rate-of-income-tax Javid, it fits with her position in the last leadership contest. In 2016 she backed Stephen Crabb, with whom she had forged a sort of liberal-unionist alliance, and (although it is hard to credit now) in that race Javid was Crabb’s ‘running mate’.

Javid also fits with Davidson’s style of rejuvenating Conservatism by tearing up the playbook. In her case it meant a) visibly embodying a new generation of Toryism and b) abandoning the “sackcloth and ashes” apologetics for being Conservatives. As potentially the first BME Prime Minister Javid certainly offers a visible refresh, and Stephen Bush has written an excellent piece in the New Statesman about how the Home Secretary is also ditching the script for how ethnic minority Tories talk about race.

Not coincidentally, Davidson had a piece in the Times Red Box this week on the need for ‘new thinking’ to turn the Party’s fortunes around.

…as Stewart picks up more fans (in Holyrood)…

Although Davidson has warm words for him, Rory Stewart will surely be sorely missing her endorsement. But he isn’t without his fans amongst the Scottish Conservatives.

Last week I noted that ‘quasi-federalist’ Murdo Fraser had come out for him, and this week he was joined by Adam Tomkins, the Scottish Tories’ constitution spokesman, and at least one other MSP. This will likely do little to ease the concerns of those worried about Stewart’s concede-to-the-devocrats approach to unionism, which we covered last week, as Tomkins was the one sent out to bat for the Scottish Tories’ screeching u-turn on special status for Ulster.

Despite this show of support from the MSPs, however, I have not yet seen a single Scottish MP endorse Stewart, despite his wholehearted endorsement of their joint letter to the Times setting out a list of demands entitled ‘Our next leader must spend to save the Union’.

…and Johnson too (in Westminster)

Even Boris Johnson, who was within recent memory the target of a concerted campaign by the Scottish Conservatives to block his path to Downing Street, has managed to get two, with both Colin Clark and Ross Thomson declaring for him this week.

The former mayor also picked up some more pan-UK support in the form of Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, who penned a piece for the Times in which he argued that, with the Union more in urgent need to defence than ever, Johnson was “the person best equipped to drive a bold, ambitious plan that will unite party and country and deliver for our nation”.

Meanwhile Davidson has urged Johnson to “do things differently” if he becomes Prime Minister, compared to his spell as Foreign Secretary, and his team have been engaged in what the FT calls “intense talks” with the Democratic Unionists about how to repair the two parties’ working agreement in the Commons.

Hunt gets tough on devocrats

A nice side-effect of the eminent position enjoyed by the Union in this leadership contest is that every candidate has to pay mind to it, and this week we saw the Foreign Secretary burnish his credentials by taking a tough attitude on attempts by devocrats to exceed their briefs and woo Europe.

Hunt withheld British diplomatic support for a mission by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, in which she tried to butter up Brussels figures and set out her case for another vote on breaking up the UK. He also refused an official car to Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, for his own Brussels visit unless he stuck to the Government’s line on Brexit.

Whilst this is obviously baby steps, it is a welcome sign that Westminster is starting to realise that it can and should assert its prerogatives within the constitutional settlement. The devocracies in Cardiff and Edinburgh spit tacks whenever London is viewed to be impinging on devolved matters – it’s only right that London take the same approach to reserved issues. We should not be subsidising separate foreign policies for Wales and Scotland.

Leadsom rows back on referendum gaffe

But the prominence of the issue is a sword that cuts both ways, as Andrea Leadsom discovered this week when she appeared to suggest that she might grant Sturgeon the power to hold another plebiscite on Scottish independence.

Although she said that she herself would fight hard against another vote, the former Leader of the House said she wouldn’t rule one out entirely as it would be ‘disrespectful’. This provoked a backlash not only from Tory unionists but also from Ian Murray, Labour’s MP for Edinburgh South, who got to claim that her comments show “that the Tories can’t be trusted to protect Scotland’s place in the Union.”

News in Brief:

  • Scottish Conservatives savage SNP over delayed broadband pledge – Daily Telegraph
  • Disgraced ex-SNP MP jailed for 18 months – The Sun

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Henry Hill: Union is centre stage as the Tory leadership contest prepares to launch

The ‘Union dimension’ of the current leadership contest

For the next few weeks this column is going to adopt a slightly more focused format, and concentrate on the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and otherwise ‘Union’ dimensions of the current Conservative leadership contest.

And compared to the last one in 2016 – and especially when compared to the one before that, all the way back in the mists of 2005 – those dimensions are much more pronounced, and important, than ever before.

For the first time since John Major was chosen, the Party sports a strong caucus of Scottish MPs. The Government also depends on the Democratic Unionist Party for its day-to-day majority in the House of Commons. This means that both these nations – and the broader question of the Union – will have a much higher profile than before.

Candidates set out proposals for Irish border…

With their Brexit strategy necessarily a centrepiece of every leadership hopeful’s campaign, more than one has set out this week how they hope to resolve the impasse created by the Irish backstop.

Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has outlined plans for a ‘grand gesture’ to the Irish Government, wherein the United Kingdom would foot the full bill for a ‘digitised border’ in Northern Ireland in order to build ‘goodwill’.

However, the Belfast Telegraph pointed out that Dublin would probably not appreciate being called “the tail that wags the dog” during Javid’s appearance on Andrew Marr.

Meanwhile Matt Hancock called for the establishment of an ‘Irish Border Council’, chaired by an independent figure, in order to keep the frontier open whilst allowing the UK to pursue an ‘independent trade policy’, the BBC reports. This would form part of his ‘credible plan’ for delivering Brexit.

However another part is reportedly a time-limit to the backstop, something Brussels has ruled out several times. This might make it tricky for the Health Secretary to criticise other candidates whose proposals involve renegotiation.

…as Stewart attacked for ‘parroting nationalist propaganda’

None of the hopefuls have attracted such ire as Rory Stewart, however. Despite trying to position himself as the unionist candidate – and having some good credentials on that score, such as his ‘Auld Acquaintance Cairn’ – he has sparked a fierce backlash over his position on the Border.

It started when Chris Montgomerie took to Twitter in the wake of one of Stewart’s campaign videos, filmed walking along (and indeed across) the aforementioned frontier, and took apart the candidate’s historical reading of the Border question, especially with regards to the order of (and causal relationship between) the end of the IRA’s terror campaign and the dismantling of British security infrastructure.

This was then expanded upon by Owen Polley, a well-known unionist writer from Northern Ireland, in a blistering attack in The Article. Stewart’s ‘facile’ comments, he said, “endorsed the Irish republican justification for violence in Northern Ireland, in all its brazen dishonesty, without criticism or qualification.”

He went on to attack the candidate’s adoption of Theresa May’s habit of taking up the language of Irish nationalism in order to try to build support for an Irish Sea border which would allow the Government to pass the Withdrawal Agreement as-is (and that is indeed the basis of Stewart’s Brexit strategy).

This would be a good time to remember, therefore, that the DUP also weighed into the leadership contest this week – to impress on all participants the importance of finding an alternative solution.

Unionists of Polley’s persuasion may also be wary of the fact that Stewart has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, a self-styled ‘quasi-federalist’ who previously angled to break the Scottish Tories away from the UK party. Elsewhere the Scotsman reports that he would not rule out, as other candidates have, holding another vote on Scottish independence.

Elsewhere Kirstene Hair, the Tory MP for Angus, has published a piece in the Times setting out what she wants to see from the leadership candidates. In addition to fierce opposition to Nicola Sturgeon, she floats the excellent idea of “a new “Union unit” within No 10, a cross-departmental focus on how policies affect all parts of the Union as well as building on the current investment through economic and cultural projects.”

Scottish Conservatives’ anti-Johnson campaign stalls

Speaking of them, there has been a spot of bother for Ruth Davidson this week over her evident back-pedalling on the previously unthinkable proposition of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.

Back in February, I wrote about reports of a sustained lobbying campaign – dubbed ‘Operation Arse’ – aimed at dissuading Conservative colleagues south of the border from endorsing his candidacy.

There was even excitable talk that Davidson might concede Fraser’s logic and split the party if he won, and Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, says that her failure to do so is somehow a failure of authenticity.

Such criticism is not fair. Like any idea which stands to profit the devocracy, setting up a separate party in Scotland will keep being raised by the usual suspects. But Davidson herself has never once supported it. Indeed she won the leadership opposing it, and indulging such logic – much like the idea of Scottish Conservative MPs acting as a ‘bloc’ – undercuts the case for remaining integrated.

But as the saying goes: “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” By striking a tough posture against Johnson when it looked as if his moment had passed, Davidson was storing up trouble. It evinces the same sort of strategic miscalculation which saw senior Scottish Tories have to perform a screeching u-turn on the Irish backstop last November.

If Johnson does have a serious shot at becoming leader, and you believe in a UK-wide Conservative Party, then acting as a bridge between the man and the Scottish people will be Davidson’s task. Easy outs, such as banning him from the Scottish conference, will not be viable.

However, this should be no excuse for Johnson himself to ignore the sincere and deep-rooted concerns which gave rise to the campaign. Comforting stats (pulled from subsamples, by the looks) will not cut it as unionist credentials.

Not that the fighting has finished. James Kanagasooriam, one of the Scottish Tory inner circle, has published a thoughtful, data-led piece on the Spectator website exploring the downsides of a Johnson premiership. But the battle may be over.

News in Brief:

  • Bradley slammed by NUJ for snubbing the media – BBC
  • Former SNP MP receives 18-month sentence for fraud – Guido Fawkes
  • Ulster police reject Mordaunt’s call for Troubles amnesty – The Guardian

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Tom Wilson: How this Islamophobia definition would weaken the Government’s counter-terror strategy

Tom Wilson is a Senior Research Fellow in the Security and Extremism Unit at Policy Exchange.

Later this week, Parliament will hold a debate on Islamophobia and, specifically, on the APPG on British Muslims’ proposal for a formal definition of the term. While many may feel there are bigger questions on the national agenda, what is decided now will have significant ramifications for long to come. A definition of Islamophobia is being proposed that, if adopted, could tie government’s hands on a number of vital areas of future legislation—not least on counter-terrorism. The concern here is whether once accepted this definition might impact media freedom, and freedom of expression more widely still.

There is common agreement that where it occurs, prejudice and discrimination against minorities should be combatted in all its manifestations. If that were all that the term Islamophobia was concerned with—as many well intentioned people seem to believe—then there could be little objection to the term. Unfortunately, Islamophobia is a word that comes with a deeply problematic history. As our new report published for Policy Exchange explains, this is a term that was always intended to go far beyond simply protecting individuals from persecution.

The definition proposed by the APPG states that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. If formally adopted by government, there is critical question of whether such a vague and expansive definition would undermine both existing and future legislation—particularly in the area of security and counter-extremism.

Conceivably, we could expect to see this definition used to challenge legislation in the courts and quite possibly there would be a further impact at the level of Judicial Review of how existing powers are used and implemented. As Richard Walton—the former head of Counter Terrorism Command at the Met—pointed out on ConservativeHome recently, under the terms of the Islamophobia definition, measures in the Human Rights Act 1998 regarding discrimination could well be used against the police in their efforts to pursue and prosecute terrorists.

Furthermore, there is the fear that definition might cause particular difficulties for local authorities, several of which have precipitously moved to adopt the APPG’s definition independent of national government. Opponents of the counter radicalisation Prevent programme have previously argued that local authorities face a conflict in being able to uphold both their Equalities duty and their obligations under Prevent. Notably, in the Runnymede Trust’s 2017 report on Islamophobia, the argument was made that Prevent effectively conflicts with the public sector equality duty on account of being discriminatory against Muslims. This claim is dubious. Yet the risk is that by endorsing the Islamophobia definition, we might see campaigners challenge local government on its implementation of Prevent by arguing that councils are conflict with their own Islamophobia definition.

Many of those minded to offer their backing for the definition without necessarily being aware of the ramifications for important areas of policy, do so out of a well-intentioned desire to show support for people who have been the victim of prejudice. But one of the great flaws in the definition concerns the groups that it leaves out.

Several prominent Muslim figures have been critical of the failure of the APPG to address intra-Muslim hatred. Commenting on our new study, Baroness Falkner noted that the APPG’s own Islamophobia report, “was as silent on the impact of Islamism as it was on the very real discrimination that Muslim minorities and secular Muslims face from within their own faith. The APPG’s definition does nothing to address this form of prejudice.” The targeting of minorities within Islam by extremists should be of considerable concern in the UK, and particularly in Scotland where Asad Shah—a member of the Ahmadiyya community—was murdered in Glasgow in 2016. Given that it is reported that the political parties there have now adopted the APPG’s definition, they must ask whether that definition is adequate given its neglect of intra-Muslim hatred.

Baroness Falkner spoke out about her own first hand experience of this form of prejudice during a Lords debate on Islamophobia in December. During that same debate, Lord Singh also noted the experience of other minorities when observing the particular attention that Islamophobia receives in public debates. As he explained, other minority groups look at this long running focus on Islamophobia and feel as if they are falling off of the government’s radar on account of lacking “a culture of complaint”.

This is something those considering adopting the definition of Islamophobia have to take into account. It has been reported that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and London City Hall have all adopted the APPG’s definition of Islamophobia. There were similar reports that the Scottish Conservatives may have accepted the definition, although the details here remain unclear.

What is notable is that so far the Conservative Government has resisted doing so. This after all is a maximalist definition, and as our report documents, highly problematic groups and individuals – of the type kept at arms length by the last Labour government as well as its Conservative successors – have played a prominent role in campaigning for an Islamophobia definition. Several appear to have fed into the definition now being proposed. A more reasonable definition—or perhaps simply a national strategy on combatting anti-Muslim hatred—might easily have won near universal backing. Instead, this definition has become a matter of contention and may yet be rejected altogether.

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Henry Hill: Davidson rejects calls to split Tories as she sets out campaign vision

Davidson rejects prospect of splitting the Party

Following suggestions (set out on this site by Andy Maciver) that the Scottish Conservatives were contemplating a breakaway, Ruth Davidson appeared to quash the suggestion this week, according to the Times.

She reportedly told Andrew Marr that: “My entire leadership pitch back in 2011 was predicated on the idea that we wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom party but with the autonomy for candidate selection, policy, financing and all of these other things that come under my purview.”

The extent of this autonomy has been stretched in the past, such as on occasions when it appeared that some Scottish Conservatives were trying to claim they had distinct policies on reserved issues.

Sources in the Scottish Tories claim to have private polling which suggests that Boris Johnson is satanically unpopular in Scotland, and some suggest that this would necessitate a breakaway if he became leader of the UK party. Earlier this week it was revealed that the former Foreign Secretary had been barred from the Scottish conference.

However, this hasn’t stopped Johnson from embarking on a ‘leadership tour’ of Scotland to bolster his ‘One Nation’ credentials, the Sun reports. He will headline a fundraiser organised by Ross Thomson, the arch-Brexiteer MP for Aberdeen South, as well as trying to drum up support amongst other associations.

Meanwhile Davidson used the conference to start setting out her pitch for the First Minister’s job at the next Scottish elections. Amongst her headline policies was a proposal to raise the leaving age for mandatory education from 16 to 18 and a new emphasis on vocational education.

She also promised that her administration would mean an end to the “constitutional games” which have so pre-occupied the SNP over the past few years.

Mercer resigns over prosecution of veterans

The News Letter reports on Johnny Mercer’s decision to withdraw his support from the Government until it takes action to prevent the prosecution of ex-servicemen for alleged historical offences in Northern Ireland.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the MP for Plymouth Moor View wrote that he found the repeated investigations “personally offensive”, adding:

“These repeated investigations with no new evidence, the macabre spectacle of elderly veterans being dragged back to Northern Ireland to face those who seek to re-fight that conflict through other means, without any protection from the Government who sent them almost 50 years ago, is too much.”

He has withdrawn his support from all Government legislation “outside of Brexit”.

Although none have yet gone so far as Mercer, the question of protecting veterans of the security forces in Northern Ireland excises a number of Conservative backbenchers. The Northern Irish Office has been criticised for deliberately excluding Ulster cases from the Ministry of Defence’s broader efforts to protect current and former soldiers from so-called ‘tank-chasing’ lawyers.

In other Northern Irish news, a senior figure in the Province’s human rights community has accused Sinn Fein of ‘abusing the concept of human rights’ by using a row over the status of the Irish language to block the restoration of Stormont.

Professor Brice Dickson, former chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, argued that republicans’ decision to use gay marriage and the language question as “bargaining chips” was denying the people of Ulster their right to government, and that in 2008 Sinn Fein supported the NIHRC’s advice on a Bill of Rights which included neither measure.

Meanwhile an academic has written to the News Letter urging the DUP to separate the two issues. Professor John Wilson Foster, a scholar of the Irish language, argued that the DUP’s opposition to gay marriage undermined the Union, and that abandoning it would strengthen their chances of resisting Sinn Fein’s politically-motivated language legislation.

Doubts linger over Welsh Assembly as health minister survives no-confidence vote

Vaughan Gething, the Welsh health minister and recent contender for the local Labour leadership, has survived an attempt to oust him from his position in the wake of the latest Welsh health scandal, Wales Online reports.

A motion of no confidence was tabled by Plaid Cymru following the revelation that dozens of stillbirths have not been properly reported or investigated at hospitals run by the Cwm Taf NHS Trust. It was supported by the Nationalists and the Tories, but fell 31 votes to 21.

This comes just weeks after news broke that Welsh patients face being turned away at English hospitals because the Welsh Government refuses to match English per-patient funding, which I looked at in this column a few weeks ago.

Perhaps stories like this explain why polling published this week to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution revealed deep ambivalence amongst the public as to whether or not it had been good for Wales, with just a third agreeing and a quarter disagreeing.

Despite this – and likely in part due to the lack of any consistent and effective devo-sceptic campaign – an overall majority (52 per cent) favour either granting the Assembly even more powers (27 per cent) or holding it at the same level (25 per cent). Just under a fifth of Welsh voters want its powers weakened or the Assembly abolished, but at present that view is almost entirely unrepresented in Welsh political life.

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