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Westlake Legal Group > The Union

David Gauke: Whatever briefings from Downing Street may claim, an election fought on a No Deal platform would be disastrous

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

How much has the Conservative Party changed? To what extent has it moved from being a mainstream, centre-right party containing a broad range of views to being a party overwhelmingly focused on delivering an uncompromising Brexit?

It is a question I have asked myself a lot in recent months. Having fought off a deselection attempt because I opposed a No Deal Brexit, and having lost the Conservative whip because I continued to oppose a No Deal Brexit, it is hard to escape the conclusion that quite a lot of Conservatives disapprove of people who oppose a No Deal Brexit. Has the debate become so rancorous and intolerant that there is no longer a place for the likes of me in the Conservative Party?

The answer to that question is uncertain, but I took some encouragement from the Manchester Party conference.
I admit to attending with some trepidation. My position on Brexit is evidently a minority one within the Party. I have not sought to hide my criticisms of the substance and tone of the Government’s approach to Brexit. And I have not ruled out standing in my constituency as an independent if the whip is not returned. If ever I was going to get a hard time from Party activists, now would be the time.

And yet, at fringe event after fringe event, Party members were courteous and polite. Andrew Gimson generously wrote up my appearance at the ConservativeHome event, but a similar report could have been written for those I did with the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. Don’t get me wrong: I am not claiming that I won the audiences over to my position – the occasional eye-roll, sigh and shake of the head was detectable – but nor was there anything like the hostility one might expect if, for example, you ever read the comments below one of my ConHome articles.

In truth, the Conservative Party felt – in those fringe meetings, at least – very similar to the party of which I have been a member for 29 years. Sensible, practical, well-meaning and decent.

I also take some encouragement from the apparent, new-found enthusiasm within the Government to reach a deal on Brexit. In previous columns, I have argued that seeking a deal and being willing to compromise is the right approach. That view would appear to be in the ascendant at the time of writing.

Until recently, an alternative approach appeared to be prevailing which seemed determined to crash us out on  October 31 at any cost. I have previously acknowledged the electoral case for this strategy, but in terms of the outcome for the country, it is thoroughly irresponsible. As such, it is also a huge departure from the modern traditions of the Conservative Party.

Let me give seven examples of principles that most Conservatives would support. I would happily sign up to each and every one of them but I struggle to reconcile them with those pursuing a No Deal Brexit at any cost.

  • We believe that living standards can only be raised and public services properly funded if you have a strong economy.

It is the argument that we have to fight at every election when our opponents make great promises but we respond by pointing out that we have to create the wealth in the first place if we properly want to fund the NHS, for example. Yet the overwhelming economic consensus is that No Deal Brexit would result in a sharp contraction in GDP. And before anyone rushes to claim that this is all a re-run of 2016’s ‘Project Fear’, remember our economy is 2.5-3 per cent smaller than it would have been had Remain won.

  • We believe in free trade.

Open markets benefit both our exporters but also our consumers. This has not always been the Conservative position but, thankfully, it has been for some time. And I know that there are plenty of Brexiteers who are sincere free traders and think that Brexit provides great new opportunities for bringing down trade barriers.

Unfortunately, it is simply not true. The Government’s analysis shows the benefit of getting trade deals with all the English-speaking nations and the major emerging economies will be just 0.2 to 0.6 per cent of GDP whereas the loss of access to European markets of a Canada-style free trade agreement (let alone a no deal Brexit) will be 4 to 7 per cent of GDP. The net effect of a No Deal Brexit or even a Canada style FTA will be to make our economy less open and more protectionist.

  • We believe in fiscal responsibility.

This was the battleground of British politics from 2009 to 2015 when we made the case for getting the deficit down. The contraction of the British economy will inevitably result in deteriorating public finances. Add to that a political strategy which focuses on winning the support of traditional Labour voters which has meant that we are almost certainly already breaking our fiscal rules.  Remember when we criticised Labour for more borrowing and more debt?

  • We don’t believe that the Government should bail-out unviable industries or businesses.

As a statement, this sounds like a bit of a throw-back to the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher weaned the country off supporting lame-duck businesses. But what do we think would happen when businesses no longer became viable because of the impact of No Deal? The pressure to provide support ‘in order to deal with the temporary disruption’ will be immense. The Government has already prepared for this with Operation Kingfisher but removing that support will be very difficult politically. There is a risk that our economy will become much more corporatist than any time since the 1970s.

  • We believe in our national institutions – Parliament, the monarchy and the independent judiciary.

This should go without saying but when Number Ten briefs that the next election will be people versus Parliament, that the Prime Minister will ‘dare the Queen to sack him’, that the judiciary is biased and that the Government will not comply with the law, we don’t sound very conservative (to put it mildly).

  • We believe in national security and ensuring that we do all we can to protect our citizens from terrorism.

And yet a ‘source in No 10’ says we will withhold security co-operation from those countries that fail to block an extension. Meanwhile, the former head of MI6 says that our security depends upon co-operation with the EU and that leaving without a deal means we will have to ‘start again with a blank sheet of paper’. In addition, it is hard to see how any ‘no deal’ outcome doesn’t destabilise the Good Friday Agreement one way or another. The Prime Minister, it is reported, is increasingly concerned about the risk of an upsurge in terrorist activities by dissident republican groups.

  • We believe in the United Kingdom.

It is obvious that Brexit is placing a strain on the union. A No Deal Brexit would be likely to result in a border poll in Northern Ireland, especially with Stormont not sitting and some form of direct rule being necessary. As for Scotland, the chaos of a No Deal Brexit provides plenty of ammunition for the separatists.

Not every Conservative voter will agree with every single one of those principles, or my criticisms of a No Deal Brexit. But a Conservative Party that fights a general election with No Deal at its heart must know that it will be pursuing an approach that is such a radical departure from the traditions of the Conservative Party and that it is vulnerable to losing the support of millions of our longstanding supporters.

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

Henry Hill: Johnson’s compromise risks laying another time-bomb under the Union

This morning’s papers are full of stories about whether or not the Prime Minister can cobble together a Commons majority for his latest proposals.

But despite reports that both a number of the ‘Whipless 21’ and a significant number of Labour MPs, might be prepared to walk through the lobby with Johnson and his Democratic Unionist allies, it is not yet at all clear that the EU will accept the plan.

Or, indeed, that they’re even meant to. It is not implausible to suggest that Boris Johnson’s plan, which involves both establishing a customs border on the island of Ireland and giving unionists a veto on breaking from alignment with the mainland, is intended more as a bid to make the Government appear the reasonable party in the event of a no-deal exit – although Tom McTague suggests this is not the case:

Even if they’re sincere, the path to a deal is fraught. As Greg Hands hinted at in ConservativeHome’s conference fringe on his Alternative Arrangements Commission, London and Dublin are not really trying to find different technical solutions to the same end-point. There is a political misalignment between what each side considers an acceptable level of post-Brexit continuity, and absent the threat of a no-deal exit the Irish Government has little motivation to, as McTague puts it, “step down from perfection.

Which is not to say that these proposals would not, if accepted, represent a serious concession – perhaps even the first of many – even if Ulster would theoretically re-align with Great Britain in 2026. One commentator has suggested that Britain becomes “more federal”, but that isn’t really accurate when he admits it likely involves an “enhanced” role for Ireland in the governance of British territory.

Owen Polley, who used to work for the Northern Irish Conservatives, sets out the problem in CapX:

“If Northern Ireland is under the political and economic control of the EU until 2026, while the rest of Britain forges an independent trade policy, that situation will become the status quo. It will have practical consequences that weaken the Union and the eventual political convulsion required to reassert British interests in Ulster will be more traumatic.”

Concluding, he adds:

“Even if the Government’s ‘final offer’ is designed to provoke Brussels into issuing a rejection and bringing about ‘no deal’, as Boris Johnson’s critics allege, it compromises the important principle that Northern Ireland should have the same relationship with the EU as the rest of the UK, after Brexit.”

This last is particularly important because, although it seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by all involved, there was once another reason why unionists were opposed to the backstop. Notwithstanding the specific case of Northern Ireland, they worried that it might set a precedent which would allow other separatist parties, most obviously the SNP, to demand special treatment in turn.

Readers may remember that this ended in a badly-justified u-turn by Ruth Davidson and David Mundell, with Adam Tomkins sent out to try to explain why differential treatment for Ulster had suddenly ceased to be a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom.

It is worth remembering, if three years of wrangling over the Belfast Agreement wasn’t reminder enough, that there is a huge, qualitative difference between any level of devolution delivered inside the UK’s internal constitutional settlement and baking divergence into an international treaty. Much like Theresa May’s lamentable capitulation over “post-Brexit devolved powers”, Johnson risks escaping a tactical difficulty only by conceding and setting in law principles which undermine the integrity and even legitimacy of the United Kingdom as a nation-state.

Both have accepted, intentionally or not, a position which posits that the UK is less entitled to institutional integrity and coherence than the European Union – Johnson in the manner set out by Polley, and May by legitimising the idea that market-coordination powers may be legitimately pooled in Brussels but not in London.

So far the SNP using the backstop to demand a similar deal for Scotland has been the dog which hasn’t barked. But even if it doesn’t, the Prime Minister must be more careful about laying time-bombs beneath the foundations of the Union. He will already have to devote considerable energy post-Brexit to defusing those bequeathed by his predecessor.

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

Nick Hargrave: As a Tory moderate, I’ve been tempted to give up on Johnson’s Conservatives. But here’s why I’m sticking with them.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

For all the talk of a new age of populism, many senior Conservatives seem to have fallen for that very Westminster myth of a binary culture war. That the British people fall into two neat camps of Leave and Remain. That both sides foam at the mouth with passionate intensity for these causes. That the country is fraying through this division. That we’re angry and we all hate each other. And that no political party in this country can ever win power again unless it squarely picks a side and tells the other to get stuffed.

Now, of course there is a values divide in our country today on the issue of identity. But if you really think that this trumps everything else in the daily lives of the British people then, frankly, you need to get out a bit more. There is a reason why Holly Willoughby, Gareth Bale and Ed Sheeran have much bigger social media followings than Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson. Only a few years ago, we used to say that the average voter spent just a few minutes each week thinking about politics. Now we argue that it is all-consuming.

Go to any focus group right now, or better still talk to an ordinary voter, and you will find that bemusement trumps bellicosity almost every time. Westminster has gone mad, but most people in the country just want this nightmare to be over – and for politicians to get back to tangible, relatable, deliverable, aspirational, outcomes-based policies that help them and their families live a better life.

We won an election on this platform in 2015 a mere 13 months before that supposed turning point referendum. It is crackers that Conservative MPs are spending more time now talking about free ports and SPS checks on agri-foods – than they are about making childcare cheaper for the parents of zero to two-year olds.

If you are a Tory – an anti-No Deal MP, a Cameron-era member or a wavering Lib-Dem switcher – who yearns for a return to this moderate normality then there are more reasons to be optimistic about the future of the party than you might think. The party leadership has done a good job of trying to alienate you since the summer with their words and deeds. But for people still weighing up whether to stay or go elsewhere, I still believe there is a clear case for sticking with the Conservative Party in the years ahead.

First of all, contrary to appearances, the Prime Minster is actually on your side of the argument. He backed Leave in 2016 because he wanted to position himself with the party membership for the future – rather than because of a neuralgic obsession about our customs relationship with the EU. He ran a leadership campaign aimed squarely at the party’s Brexit-centric voting shareholders because he knew that was the only route to Number 10. But as well as being a political opportunist, Boris Johnson has always had an intuitive grasp of the public mood. As said recently, once we leave the European Union he wants to focus with “an absolute laser like precision on the domestic agenda”.

These are not the words of a man who is looking to spend the next decade grappling with dramatic divergence or Government by Operation Yellowhammer. He knows there aren’t very many votes in it. He patently wants to get a withdrawal deal done, go to the country with a sensible retail domestic platform, win a decent majority  – and then use that mandate to put trade talks in the second tier, minimally divergent in the short-term box they belong.

All the while he will focus on schools, hospitals, housing and crime as domestic priorities instead. For those who say this is impossible given the pressure from his backbenchers – Canada good, Norway bad – I would only say that it is amazing what a healthy majority can do for your powers as Prime Minister. And who knows what the EU itself will look like in five years’ time.

Second, the prospect of leaving the European Union with a deal by October 31 – or shortly after with a brief technical extension- is under-priced at the moment.  It is the least politically difficult for Johnson of all of his options now.

The UK and the EU27 are also less far apart on the substance than suits either side to say. There is a way through on the much obsessed backstop that puts lipstick on the original proposal of limited future divergence in the Irish Sea. So much of the reason that this was a non-starter for Theresa May was that she knew she would never fight another election and her future was bound with the favour of the DUP. That is not true for Boris Johnson in quite the same way. That is before you get to the logical argument that Northern Ireland’s history since its construction in 1921 has been based on evolving and imaginative constitutional flex – that recognises the profoundly unique circumstances of the past.

Third, with a bit of strategic direction in the 2020s, it is perfectly possible to make the Conservative Party’s membership more reflective of the country at large. This in turn has an impact on what front rank politicians in the party end up saying and doing. Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by a margin of 45,497 votes in the last leadership election. The numbers involved are not enormous. If you want the next candidate of moderation to overturn that deficit then that is the equivalent of recruiting 70 odd supporters per constituency in England, Scotland and Wales in the intervening period. At £2.09 a month by direct debit, with minimal obligations for boots on the ground activism, that is a pretty sellable insurance policy for the future of your country.

Finally – and simply – the perfect should never be the enemy of the just about bearable in a first-past-the-post electoral system. This is not a time to take any chances. If you don’t think Jeremy Corbyn running the fifth largest economy in the world is a good idea then your vote at the next election should be exercised wisely.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that I agree with everything the Conservative leadership have said and done in recent weeks. It would also be dishonest to claim that the thought of voting Liberal Democrat did not flicker momentarily as we’ve veered towards knuckle-head, pound-shop Orbanism – rather than the finest traditions of Conservatism. But for all that noise, I am not sure the task of recapturing those traditions is as out of grasp as commonly supposed. That’s why I’ll be voting Conservative at the next general election and retaining my membership; I’d thoroughly recommend you do too.

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David Trimble: We can do better than the backstop. Why the Withdrawal Agreement breaches the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

Lord Trimble is a former First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in securing the Belfast Agreement.

Michel Barnier has written that the backstop “is not about changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. That is none of the EU’s business…” Yet that is precisely what the backstop does do. He goes on to claim that “the backstop fully respects the carefully negotiated balance found in that Belfast/Good Friday Agreement between competing political views and different identities in Northern Ireland”: he is wrong – he is riding rough shod over our Agreement. That is why Unionists oppose it and why the Government, having listened and learned, now insists that the backstop must go.

It is true that the current backstop avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it does so at the expense of the ‘”carefully negotiated balance” found in the Agreement.

The European Commission recently confirmed its view that ‘the backstop provided for by the Withdrawal Agreement is the only solution identified that safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, ensures compliance with international law obligations and preserves the integrity of the internal market’. They are wrong.

The backstop is not a legally operational solution, as it is not in keeping with the spirit and letter of the Agreement. I set out the detailed arguments as to why this is the case in an article for Policy Exchange in July this year. In summary, the backstop undermines the core principles of the Agreement – consent and agreement between equals that runs across all three of its strands – and it changes the status of Northern Ireland contrary to the Agreement.

In doing so, it risks the constitutional stability that Northern Ireland has enjoyed for over 20 years and undermines the principles that determine how it is governed. Devolved powers are reduced and a democratic deficit created.

In imposing a new basis for North-South co-operation, the backstop overrides the consent model established by the Belfast Agreement and sets out not to protect the economic co-operation that exists but to actively create an all-island economy that does not currently exist. The Belfast Agreement accords specific provision for the North-South Ministerial Council matters to be heard on matters relating to the European dimension, “including policies under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements are to be made to ensure the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings”: they are not under the backstop – a clear breach of the Agreement.

The means by which the architecture of the settlement created by the Agreement has been re-negotiated are far removed from those that led up to the agreement made in Belfast in 1998; this was agreed through negotiations between the Northern Ireland parties and between the UK and Irish governments, so that there was ownership of what was agreed both in Northern Ireland and between the governments. How different the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations have been.

The Government now accepts the main points of my argument, and an August letter from the Prime Minister to Donald Tusk states that ‘..it has become increasingly clear that the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement…’

The Commission certainly has expertise in what is required to ensure the integrity of the internal market, but it does not have the expertise to make a judgment on what does or does not uphold the Belfast Agreement. It does not have, nor should it claim to have, the authority to decide upon this.

Here lies the problem right at the heart of the failure of the Brexit talks. The Commission alone, on behalf of the EU27, is negotiating the terms of the UK’s withdrawal; yet the subject matter on which we are all stuck is an area that is not entirely within the jurisdiction of the EU. The EU recognises in its original negotiating guidelines of 2017 the bilateral arrangements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland; these include the Agreement – an international treaty between two sovereign states which allows no third party arbitration and no alteration without the approval of both governments and, where necessary, that of the parties in Northern Ireland too.

Despite the wide-ranging remit accorded to the Commission to negotiate the terms of UK withdrawal, those powers do not include negotiating changes to areas covered by the Agreement. Under its terms, where difficulties arise they must be addressed by the parties to the Agreement – that is, either amongst the parties in Northern Ireland or by the two governments. There can be no derogation of sovereignty and no application of force. So sensitive is this matter that when the Republic agreed to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in 2011, it did so for all matters other than those concerning Northern Ireland.

Given that the EU has no jurisdiction over matters governed by the Agreement, it is acting ultra vires. This means that it is exceeding its authority, and I dare say capability, in determining how the Republic of Ireland can ensure the integrity of the Single Market and, along with the UK, avoid a hard border whilst upholding the Agreement.

The EU may insist that the Single Market’s integrity is upheld on the border, as it does for all third country borders, but on the island of Ireland it is entering a mix of responsibilities and obligations, some overlapping, between itself and between those of the UK, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This imposes limits to the reach of the EU’s authority in the current negotiations, and imposes responsibilities and obligations on the UK and the Republic, as well as the devolved institutions.

Until this is acknowledged, we are unlikely to find a way though to a solution. The point has come at which bilateral talks between the UK and Ireland and Belfast and Dublin are needed to break the impasse. Responsibility and sovereignty lies with the governments to work out a means of balancing the requirements of the Agreement and the Single Market’s integrity, with the aim of avoiding a hard border. The EU is committed to supporting the Belfast Agreement and the peace process; it surely cannot be beyond it to allow for flexibility in the application of some of the common commercial rules, as allowed for in the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

By handing back the problem of the border to the UK, the Republic and the relevant parties, the EU would be giving the responsibility for the solution where it ought to lie and to the only two states that together can solve the challenge it presents. As I said in my Policy Exchange article, much is said of what technology and systems can do to prevent a hard border, but little about the necessity of consent, agreement and co-operation.

The Prime Minister is fond of saying that “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Whilst the EU continues to present the backstop as a legally operational solution, which it is not, it has no incentive to replace the backstop; while Dublin is allowed to avoid its bilateral obligations ,it has no incentive to co-operate.

It is time that the UK set out in full its concerns about the backstop, the limits of multilateral negotiations and the requirement, as well as the necessity, for bilateral negotiations with the Republic to find solutions for the border on the island of Ireland.

There will have to be compromises on all sides, new areas of co-operation and real partnership if these challenges are to be overcome. It can be done: it was in 1998, and I will not forget the efforts made by Bertie Ahern to understand our concerns and accommodate them in the last few days.

However, such compromises will neither be reached by pretending that the Protocol is fit for purpose, nor by putting the onus on the UK to come up with solutions on its own — neither are required under Article 50 nor under the terms of the Agreement: on the contrary.

The foundation of the Agreement is good relations between the UK and the Republic ,and the operation of consent and agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland. We now have an opportunity to revitalise our relations and co-operation in order to solve the outstanding areas of disagreement in the Withdrawal Agreement; not only that, but to do it in such a way that British-Irish relations are strengthened and the architecture of the Belfast Agreement utilised and extended, not simply “protected”. That would be a big win for all the peoples of these islands and for the principles that govern our relations.

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

Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so.

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information about his work, visit www.lordashcroft.com and www.lordashcroftpolls.com.

Last month, my polling in Scotland found a small lead for independence. My latest research, a survey in Northern Ireland, brings equally gloomy news for Unionists: a slender lead for Irish unification in the event of a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

In my poll, 45 per cent said that they would vote to stay in the UK, and 46 per cent said they would choose to leave and join the Republic of Ireland – a lead of 51 per cent to 49 per cent for unification when we exclude don’t knows and those who say they would not vote.

This is in fact a statistical tie, and well within the margin of error. Such a result might also reflect the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Brexit, the Irish border and its potential effect on life in the province, which could recede when the outcome is settled. Be that as it may, the result underlines what could be at stake in the quest for a workable Brexit solution on the island of Ireland.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.03.57 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   People divided, predictably enough, by tradition, though one in 20 self-declared Unionists said they would opt for unification and a further six per cent said they didn’t know how they would vote. Women (13 per cent) were much more likely than men (three per cent) to say they were not sure what they would do. The over-65 age group was the only one with a clear majority for staying in the union (55 per cent to 34 per cebt); 45-64s divided evenly, and a majority of those aged up to 44 said they would vote for unification.

While only eight per cent of unionists said they thought such a “border poll” should take place within the next decade, one in three of them thought it was likely to happen within this timescale – as did nine in ten nationalists.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.08.20 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   A majority think that in a referendum tomorrow, Northern Ireland would, in fact, choose to remain part of the UK. But when we asked what the outcome would be in ten years’ time, the result was reversed: most believe the vote would be for unification, with only three in ten believing voters would choose the UK. Unionists are markedly less confident about the chances of winning a more distant referendum: while 87 per cent think Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK if a border poll were held tomorrow, this falls to just 59 per cent if a ballot were held a decade from now. Nationalists are correspondingly more confident: while only just over half think the province would vote for unification tomorrow, 93 per cent think this would be the case in ten years’ time.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.09.33 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   Nearly half of Northern Ireland voters say they feel less close to the rest of the UK than they did five years ago. This includes the great majority of nationalists, as well as 70 per cent of those who voted to remain in the EU. Around one in six unionists overall say they feel less close to the UK now.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.10.41 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   More than half of voters in Northern Ireland, including nearly one in five unionists, think Brexit strengthens the case for unification. And whatever the merits of the argument, nearly two thirds think Brexit makes unification in the foreseeable future more likely. This includes more than three in ten unionists, nearly one in eight of whom think it makes the eventuality much more likely.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.11.44 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   For half of Northern Ireland voters, including 85 per cent of nationalists and remain voters – the preferred outcome of the Brexit standoff would be for the UK to remain in the EU. Nearly four in ten back Boris Johnson’s position of leaving on October 31 with or without a deal – the most popular choice for 70 per cent of unionists, and 82 per cent of Leave voters. Only one in ten say they would most like to leave the EU with a good deal even if this means waiting beyond next month’s deadline.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.12.41 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   If the choice on Brexit came down to leaving with a deal that includes the backstop or leaving with no deal, six in ten Northern Ireland voters (including 96 per cent of nationalists) said they would choose the backstop. However, only one in five unionists say they are prepared to accept it: 77 per cent of them said they would rather leave with no deal.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.14.26 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   Overall, a quarter of Northern Ireland voters agree that the backstop “is not ideal, but it is an acceptable compromise for getting Brexit done without the risk of a hard border”. Only 15 per cent of unionists take this view. Nearly eight in ten unionists believe the backstop “separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in unacceptable ways, and the government should not agree to any deal that includes it.” Meanwhile, for a clear majority of Nationalists, “there is no problem with the backstop and the government should accept it as part of a Brexit deal.”

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.15.28 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   By the same token, three quarters of Unionists believe that if it comes to a choice between the two, “making sure exactly the same laws and regulations apply in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK” is more important than “making sure there is no visible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.” Nearly nine in ten remain voters, and 96 per cent of nationalists, take the opposite view.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.15.28-1 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   A majority believe a no-deal Brexit would be “disastrous” for Northern Ireland. Nationalist voters are nearly unanimous in this view. Among unionists, the majority opinion, held by around two thirds, is that no deal “would cause some difficulties, but the risks have been exaggerated.” Fewer than one in ten voters overall believe a no-deal Brexit would cause “only negligible problems for Northern Ireland, if any.”

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.17.30 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   Despite this, four in ten voters, including more than eight in ten unionists, agreed with the statement that the border issue “is being deliberately exaggerated by politicians who want to stop Brexit – if both sides were willing, a practical solution could be found that would avoid a hard border after Brexit without EU regulations applying in Northern Ireland.” However, a majority overall, including nearly all nationalists, agree that the only way to avoid a hard border “is to keep the backstop, or for the UK to remain in the EU – there is no alternative solution available.”

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.18.22 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   When it came to the bigger choice, Northern Ireland voters as a whole said it was more important for them to remain in the EU than in the UK, by 55 per cent to 44 per cent. While nationalists were unsurprisingly all but unanimous in choosing the EU, 12 per cent of self-declared unionists said that if it were not possible to have both, they thought it was more important to remain in the EU than to stay part of the UK.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.20.19 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   Asked how they felt about various political leaders, voters as a whole put the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long at the top of the list, with Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, second and Boris Johnson – who scores higher marks among unionists than Arlene Foster – in third place overall. Jeremy Corbyn scores highest among nationalists, who give him the third highest marks behind Long and Varadkar.

Johnson pips Corbyn to the title of best Prime Minister among Northern Ireland voters by 45 per cent to 41 per cent. This may be because while nearly nine in ten unionists and leave voters name Johnson, nationalists – perhaps on principle – are more likely to say they don’t know, though 80 per cent of them say they prefer Corbyn.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-09-10-at-20.21.20 Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so. United Kingdom The Union Northern Ireland Naomi Long MP Lord Ashcroft Leo Varadkar TD Jeremy Corbyn MP ireland Highlights Comment Boris Johnson MP Arlene Foster MLA Alliance Party   However, if they had to choose between a Labour government with Corbyn as Prime Minister or a Conservative government led by Johnson, Northern Ireland voters as a whole plump for the former by 53 per cent to 47 per cent – though nine in ten unionists prefer Johnson and the Tories.

1,542 adults in Northern Ireland were interviewed online between 30 August and 2 September 2019. Full details can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

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Post-Ruth politics: the battle over her legacy will shape the future of the Scottish Tories

There are likely very few news stories which could have made much of an impact yesterday over the roar of Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. But word of the imminent resignation of Ruth Davidson was one of them.

In both her resignation letter and her televised statement, the Scottish Conservative leader has chosen to play down her differences with the Prime Minister as the cause of her decision – although there are more than enough people playing it up. Going further, she says that in her private letter to Johnson she thanked him for his commitment to the Union.

Of course, there is no doubt that this relationship has nonetheless played an important role in this decision. There was a reason she set herself against his becoming Prime Minister, and whilst Davidson is gone the UK party still needs – indeed, now more than ever – to address its Scottish challenges.

Nonetheless, her prima facie explanation is entirely reasonable. The tumultuous period of British politics kicked off by the 2014 Scottish referedum shows no sign of ending. A general election, a Scottish election, and perhaps another independence referendum – or even another EU one – all loom on the horizon. Having served as leader through one of each Davidson knows full well what those campaigns will demand, and has the self-awareness to recognise that she doesn’t want to fight them.

This need not be the end of her political career. Although she has only said she intends to serve as MSP for Edinburgh Central until 2021, Davidson is young and talented and there is nothing to preclude her returning to the fray at a later date. In particular in the event of another independence referendum sometime in the 2020s, after she has had a few years out of the front line, it is not impossible to imagine her answering the ultimate call of duty to lead that fight. If Alistair Darling did could rejoin the fray, she can.

In the meanwhile, the question arises as to the future of the Scottish Conservatives. The upcoming leadership election will likely be a battle between some revived form of Murdo Fraser’s proposal to split the Party – which remains for all its originator’s good intentions a very bad idea for the Union – and the alternative, especially as there is apparently no succession plan from the Davidsonites. Crucial to this question is that of whether or not the Party can succeed without her.

Davidson has undoubtedly played an instrumental role in the revival of the Party in Scotland. Stephen Daisley aptly summarises this in the Spectator:

“Elected leader in 2011, Davidson slogged her guts out turning a moribund rump with little support outside Scotland’s rural south to the main opposition in the Scottish Parliament and the second largest Scottish contingent at Westminster. She doubled the number of Tory MSPs in a single election and, a year later, took their haul of MPs from one to 13. Davidson was also instrumental in defeating the SNP in the 2014 independence referendum and in successfully fending off Sturgeon’s attempts to revive the issue over the past five years.”

But whilst this might be the truth, it is not the whole truth. It is important not to allow recognition of Davidson’s achievements to turn into myth-making and a counsel of despair for the rest of the party.

After all, Davidson had been leader for four years by the time of the 2015 election, at which the Conservatives won only their lone seat in Scotland. Likewise the past couple of years have been marked by a degree of strategic drift, with both Davidson and Mundell u-turning over the backstop and their closest parliamentary allies colluding against the Government over “post-Brexit devolved powers”, a move which appears to have won them little nationalist support but poses a great danger to the Union.

The sweet spot of ‘Project Ruth’, if Tim Shipman’s Fall Out is accurate, fell between 2015 and 2017, when Davidson’s first-rate talents as a communicator and campaigner were augmented by a support team which added to her tactical instincts a huge capacity for data-led, strategic thinking. The break-up of this team, as much as unfavourable developments in wider politics, must be recognised as a factor in the latter stalling of the Tories’ forward momentum in Scotland.

Furthermore, it would be a gross disservice to Davidson’s legacy to imagine that her departure puts the Party back where it started in 2011. It has hugely expanded its representation not only in Westminster and Holyrood but in local government, giving the Conservatives hundreds of local advocates and on-the-ground intelligence. The Labour Party in Scotland is still dying, and recent statements by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have only affirmed that they cannot be trusted by pro-UK voters.

So Scottish Tories must not allow themselves to sink back into the Slough of Despond from which their leader spent eight years digging them out. Davidson has bequeathed them a far stronger party than she inherited herself, and her would-be successors do neither her or the membership any favours if they treat her achievements as transient things, held together only by a sort of personal magic.

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Brexit, Johnson, Merkel, Macron – and 30 days in the wilderness

“We were also over-reliant on Angela Merkel, even after she showed us that she wasn’t as dependable a supporter as we might have wished,” wrote Daniel Korski, in his account of how David Cameron lost the EU referendum.  “She certainly seemed to take much more of a back seat during the final, crucial weeks of negotiations, giving advice, offering support and laying out red lines, but not getting too involved.”

An entire library could be assembled of stories claiming that Merkel would, at one time or another, come to the aid of a British Government during its to-and-fros with the European Union.  The claim is that Germany – as another pro-free trade, pro-American, pro-market economy country – is a natural UK ally.  But when push comes to shove, Merkel has stuck with France and the EU Commission.

Korski reminds his readers that she deserted Cameron over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the Commission’s President, to which she was originally opposed.   As with Cameron, so with Theresa May: as recently as February, the German Chancellor called for “creative” thinking on…yes, the Northern Ireland backstop.  “We can still use the time to perhaps reach an agreement if everyone shows good will,” she said.

And as with May so, now, with Boris Johnson.  Once again, Merkel has said that there is time to agree a deal – 30 days, to be precise.  “The backstop has always been a fall-back option until this issue is solved,” she said on Wednesday, during a join press conference with the Prime Minister.  “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?”

Some have put that remark alongside Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that “the framework that has been negotiated by Michel Barnier that can be adapted,” and concluded that the EU is preparing to blink at the last moment, climb down on the backstop, and present Johnson with an amended Withdrawal Agreement – which will then at last pass through Parliament, thus bringing this chapter of the Brexit story to a close.

According to one version of events, the Prime Minister himself believes that such an outcome is still possible, while others in his top team don’t.  If so, the balance of the argument strongly suggests that they are right, for four main reasons.  First, the EU collectively takes its ideology seriously, and this demands sticking with the Withdrawal Agreement, or an agreement so like it as to make no difference.

Second, it must show Donald Trump, and the rest of the world, that if it takes a position on a major strategic issue, such as Brexit, it will hold to it.  Third, Germany and France must ultimately be sensitive to the concerns of smaller EU countries, of which one is in the Brexit front line: Ireland.  Fourth, they have reason to wait, along with the rest of the EU, to see if the Commons, when it returns in September, blocks Brexit yet again.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Merkel’s position is not as dominant as it was during the Cameron years; and even then, to quote Korski once again, she was prone to “not getting too involved”.  Seen in this light, Merkel and Macron’s words – which in any event must be considered in the context of everything else they said – look more like more gambits in a blame game than a genuine change of heart.

Johnson wants to signal that he’s up for a deal: that was the point of his visits before this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz.  Macron and Merkel do, too: hence their hints of flexibility.  But the sum of the evidence is that “nothing has changed”.  In any event, it is far from certain that even a revised Withdrawal Agreement would get through Parliament.  That would require a Bill, which would of course be amendable, and time is very short.

If the EU had prized mutual gain over protecting its project, it wouldn’t have insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement precede trade talks.  Perhaps there will be a last minute shift after all, if Johnson can demonstrate that Parliament cannot stop the No Deal Brexit that his Government is actively preparing for: the European Council will meet on October 17.  But it appears that all concerned are now bracing for No Deal.

Some in Number Ten are hopeful that, if it happens, the EU will go for mass mini-deals – and so oil the wheels of economic co-operation.  That would be a rational response to the threat of recession in Germany and elsewhere, and the hard border in Ireland that a No Deal Brexit would bring.  But the EU’s clinging to the backstop, despite its commitment to seek alternative arrangements by December next year, suggests that rationality is in short supply.

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“The backstop is anti-democratic.” Johnson’s letter about it to Tusk. Full Text.

Dear Donald,

United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union

The date of the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the European Union (EU), 31 October, is fast approaching. I very much hope that we will be leaving with a deal. You have my personal commitment that this Government will work with energy and determination to achieve an agreement. That is our highest priority.

With that in mind, I wanted to set out our position on some key aspects of our approach, and in particular on the so-called “backstop” in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. Before I do so, let me make three wider points.

First, Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.

Second, and flowing from the first, I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

Third, and for the avoidance of any doubt, the UK remains committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area, to upholding the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, to ongoing North-South cooperation, and to retaining the benefits of the Single Electricity Market.

The changes we seek relate primarily to the backstop. The problems with the backstop run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected by the House of Commons. The truth is that it is simply unviable, for these three reasons.

First, it is anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state.

The backstop locks the UK, potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland. It places a substantial regulatory border, rooted in that treaty, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The treaty provides no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally and affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them.

That is why the backstop is anti-democratic.

Second, it is inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU.

When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

The backstop is inconsistent with this ambition. By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad ranges of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.

Accordingly, as I said in Parliament on 25 July, we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to ‘full alignment’ with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland.

Third, it has become increasingly clear that the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights. While I appreciate the laudable intentions with which the backstop was designed, by removing control of such large areas of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no democratic control, this balance risks being undermined.

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.

The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.

Next Steps

For these three reasons the backstop cannot form part of an agreed Withdrawal Agreement. That is a fact we must both acknowledge. I believe the task before us is to strive to find other solutions, and I believe an agreement is possible.

We must, first, ensure there is no return to a hard border. One of the many dividends of peace in Northern Ireland and the vast reduction of the security threat is the disappearance of a visible border. This is something to be celebrated and preserved. This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.

We must also respect the aim to find “flexible and creative” solutions to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. That means that alternative ways of managing the customs and regulatory differences contingent on Brexit must be explored. The reality is that there are already two separate legal, political, economic and monetary jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. This system is already administered without contention and with an open border.

The UK and the EU have already agreed that “alternative arrangements” can be part of the solution. Accordingly:

– I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

– I also recognise that there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at whatcommitment might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.

Time is very short. But the UK is ready to move quickly, and given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise. I am equally confident that our Parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the “backstop”: indeed it has already demonstrated that there is a majority for an agreement on these lines.

I believe that a solution on the lines we are proposing will be more stable, more long lasting, and more consistent with the overarching framework of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement which has been decisive for peace in Northern Ireland. I hope that the EU can work energetically in this direction and for my part I am determined to do so.

I am copying this letter to the President of the European Commission and members of the European Council.

Yours ever,

Boris

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Henry Hill: Wallace rejects amnesty for Ulster veterans, but wants inquiries restrained

Wallace rejects amnesty for soldiers but wants inquiries curbed

This week Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, revealed that he is opposed to offering an amnesty to members of the Armed Forces who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Whilst arguing that they should receive “the very best legal advice and support”, the former Security Minister is reportedly concerned that any amnesty would also need to be extended to paramilitaries and terrorists. According to the Times, he said:

“We must make sure we don’t let off the hook the murderers that are still out there and need to be hunted down and convicted of the killings that they took part in.”

This will be controversial due to the previous scandal over so-called ‘comfort letters’, which were issued by the Blair Government and are widely viewed to have given a de facto amnesty to IRA terrorists. They came to light after collapsing the trial of John Downey, who was being prosecuted over his role in the Hyde Park bombing.

However, Wallace did offer ex-servicemen some hope. The Daily Mail reports that he doesn’t want any new investigations to proceed unless actual new evidence emerges against individual soldiers. He also stated that he did not intend to allow the history books to be ‘rewritten’, and that the Armed Forces should be proud of what they achieved in Ulster.

This is addressed directly at the concerns of many unionists, who worry that the historical inquiries process is unfairly targeting the Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary and thus bolstering a republican narrative of the Troubles.

Labour’s civil war on the Union deepens

Last week, I wrote about how John McDonnell had opened a rift in the Labour Party over their stance on a second Scottish independence referendum.

In what looked like a fairly shameless bid to woo the SNP, the Shadow Chancellor announced that a Corbyn-led government would not stand in the way of a second referendum.

This sparked huge controversy because McDonnell appeared to be unilaterally re-writing Labour policy on the issue – and cutting Scottish Labour off at the knees to boot.

Although he initially doubled down on his remarks, this week opened with Labour officially ruling out entering into any formal alliance with the Nationalists to oust the Tories, instead committing to governing as a minority government in such circumstances.

If true, this suggests a remarkable amount of strategic incoherence. Such an announcement is unlikely to undo the damage McDonnell has likely done to Labour’s standing with its unionist voters, whilst ruling out an alliance appears to rule out any potential dividend from his actions. Of course, it does invite us to speculate as to what constitutes a ‘formal alliance’…

Meanwhile the Scottish party has condemned the national leadership, and Labour MSPs have vowed to ignore the Shadow Chancellor’s new policy – although left-wing allies of McDonnell hit back at ‘kamikaze unionists’ in a leak to a separatist site. The surprise departure of Brian Roy, the General Secretary of Scottish Labour, added to the turmoil.

On the Tory front, David Mundell has cropped up to suggest that it would be very difficult for the Government to resist legislating for a second referendum in the event that separatist parties won a majority at the 2021 Scottish election. (He is mistaken.) Meanwhile a poll found that only two fifths of Scottish voters think another referendum should be granted in the next five years.

Salmond paid half a million by the Scottish Government

It is often suggested that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pursue independence so vociferously in part to distract from the hash they are making of governing Scotland. This week provides yet another raft of embarrassing headlines which lend weight to that suspicion.

First, and most shockingly, it emerged that the Scottish Government has paid out almost half a million pounds to Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, over its mishandling of its official inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him. This money was to cover his legal costs after he mounted a successful legal challenge on the matter.

That case is separate to the criminal case against the former SNP leader, who is charged with two attempted rapes, nine sexual assaults and two indecent assaults. He denies all wrongdoing, but the case remains a time bomb ticking under the Scottish Government – Sturgeon was Salmond’s protege, and it was her administration that presided over the botched inquiry into his conduct.

If that weren’t enough, elsewhere this week we learn that once again the Nationalists’ university fees policy has seen Scottish pupils missing out on places offered to applicants from elsewhere in the United Kingdom; the SNP Health Secretary has announced that an embattled £150 million hospital may not be open by the end of 2020, following concerns about the construction process and reviews of its safety; and a pro-Nationalist business magnate is furious that the Scottish Government may be about to nationalise a shipyard he rescued.

This week in commentary

There has been quite a bit of interesting commentary on Union-related issues this week, so rather than scatter them throughout the rest of the column I’ve collated them here.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner suggests that Brexit has made Scottish independence more difficult (only two years after ConHome considered that point proven, but still). Rather than be bullish about the implications of this he chooses to finish on a maudlin note, but that’s unionism for you.

From his new vantage point at the Atlantic, the excellent Tom McTague (formerly of Politico) sets out why Brexiteers are right to be deeply concerned about the Irish backstop. The analysis isn’t perfect, but it’s a rare sympathetic take on the pro-UK position.

In the Scotsman, Brian Monteith – now a Brexit Party MEP – suggests that Ruth Davidson’s decisions have imperilled the UK, whilst Paul Hutcheon writes in the Herald that the biggest threat to the Union is Scottish Labour’s collapse.

Finally, Iain Martin has decided that the way to save the UK is radical constitutional reform including devolution to England, a senate, and the rest. As is traditional for advocates of this position, he appears to just assume it will work, and makes no attempt to explain why identical assumptions about the last two decades of the devolution project have all come to nothing. Sigh.

News in Brief:

  • Varadkar ‘opposed to direct rule’ as he prepares to meet Johnson – iNews
  • Controversial cybernat blogger to launch new separatist party – The Times
  • Lib Dems and Greens to join anti-Brexit alliance with Plaid – The Spectator
  • SDLP sparks row after querying Union Flags on Tesco fruit – Belfast Telegraph
  • Scottish Court to hear ‘fast-tracked’ legal challenge to Brexit – FT
  • Ex-Plaid leader criticised over comments on carrying knives – The Sun
  • RBS ‘will move to England’ in the event of independence – The Scotsman

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Henry Hill: Tories hope that ‘Boris bounce’ will save them in Brecon and Radnorshire

Welsh voters go to the polls in Brecon and Radnorshire by-election

Boris Johnson faces his first electoral test as Prime Minister today as Welsh voters head to the polls in a by-election which could cut his razor-thin Commons majority even further.

Despite speculation that he might avoid visiting Brecon and Radnorshire, where the incumbent Chris Davies is expected to lose after being successfully recalled over his expenses, the Daily Telegraph reveals that the Prime Minister committed to campaigning there within minutes of winning the Tory leadership.

Moreover, despite the candidate himself being accused of ducking hustings, word on the ground is that the Conservatives might have done better than expected.

Liberal Democrats are reportedly concerned that the sheer size of the rural seat has prevented them applying their usual ‘pavement-pounding’ tactics to full effect, and the party’s failure to manage expectations has elevated the contest to ‘must-win’ territory. Tories have also been given hope by the ‘Boris bounce’, a polling boost which has put them ahead of Labour in Wales’ Westminster voting intention as the Opposition record their lowest-ever result.

In fact, Labour appear to be being squeezed from both directions, losing poll position to the Conservatives at Westminster and to Plaid Cymru, the nationalists, at the Assembly. Mark Drakeford, Labour’s small-n nationalist First Minister, has responded to the latter by desperately trying to drum up the threat of independence.

Apart from illustrating once again the absurdity of claiming that devolution has weakened the separatists and strengthened the UK, the sharp divergence between these two Welsh polls also highlights a point I previously raised in my analysis of the Welsh Tories’ struggles at the Assembly: lots of pro-UK, pro-Tory voters don’t turn out for devolved elections. Leaning into this devocrats’ playground, which is the inclination of the current Assembly leadership, risks leaving space for a more committedly unionist party to start eating their vote.

But as we know, devocrat narratives exist independently of evidence or experience. Thus, two years after I asked whether Remainers would ever admit that Brexit was clearly proving much better for the Union than they had allowed, we have the Guardian’s Martin Kettle asking if Johnson might not end up being the handmaid of, of all things, Welsh independence. Spoiler: no.

Johnson vows not to be neutral on the Union as he woos the DUP

Wales wasn’t the only part of the UK to feature in the Prime Minister’s whistle-stop tour this week. He also visited Scotland (of which more below) and Northern Ireland.

His efforts in Ulster appear to break down into a few broad categories. First, the inevitable exercise in trying to get Stormont back on its feet. Second, providing another opportunity to square off against Leo Varadkar over the question of the backstop. Third, nurturing his relationship with the Government’s Democratic Unionist allies.

Devolution isn’t coming back anytime soon, and nobody seems to have squandered many column inches suggesting otherwise. At the very least, Sinn Fein have no reason to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly until Westminster has imposed liberalising moves on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Johnson’s tough line with Dublin hasn’t changed – and Owen Polley has mounted a strong case for it on CapX this week – but it has led to a fresh confrontation with Sinn Fein after the republicans demanded a referendum on Northern Ireland’s accession to the Republic in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They also warned the Prime Minister not to be the DUP’s ‘gofer’, picking up earlier criticisms about the close working relationship between the two parties.

In response, the Prime Minister hit back by insisting that he would never be neutral on the Union – echoing David Cameron’s language on the subject – and he denied being complacent about the peace process.

He also held a private meeting with senior DUP figures, including Arlene Foster, their leader, Nigel Dodds, who heads up their Westminster group, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, their Commons chief whip. The former First Minister insisted that the terms of the two parties’ cooperation were not discussed, although as I wrote yesterday they will surely be renegotiated sooner rather than later.

If so, the DUP should press the Prime Minister on his commitment to protect ex-servicemen who served in Northern Ireland. This week Julian Smith, Johnson’s uninspiring choice of Northern Irish Secretary, refused to endorse his leader’s promises on the question. Has he gone native already, at a Government ministry already accused of ‘pandering to republicans’?

Johnson and Davidson call a truce in the face of separatists within and without

Not to be left out, Scotland also witnessed its first visit of Johnson’s premiership. Here his mission was not only to face down Nicola Sturgeon but also to try and mend relations with Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories, who are reportedly furious after his decision to dismiss David Mundell from the Cabinet.

He hit a bad note on both fronts by ignoring his Scottish leader’s warning not to attend on the First Minister at her official residence, Bute House. This gave nationalist activists the opportunity to stage a protest and boo Johnson for the cameras, an act immediately (and inevitably) interpreted by pro-Remain commentators as a spontaneous and organic event.

Nonetheless, media reports suggest that the two Tories have managed to put together a “fragile truce”. Davidson is striking a tough line against a no-deal Brexit but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, as she isn’t in Cabinet she isn’t required to support it. Furthermore Adam Tomkins, an MSP and close ally of Davidson, has taken to Twitter to set out that the Scottish Conservatives nonetheless agree that we must leave the EU in October. ‘Pursuing’ a no-deal exit is not the same as ‘preparing’ for one.

Meanwhile, Murdo Fraser and Andy Maciver have got their 2011 band back together and once again started pushing to split the Scottish Conservatives away from the UK party. This comes off the back of several articles by Stephen Daisley in which Tory sources – almost certainly MSPs – suggest that the Holyrood (and presumably local government) divisions of the Party could split off. Coincidentally, that is also Fraser and Maciver’s new proposal.

This has the air of a solution in search of a problem – it was supposed to be the only path to a centre-right revival in Scotland until Ruth Davidson delivered one by doing precisely the opposite -but the new plan is at least less damaging to the Union than the 2011 proposal, which involved taking the MPs with it and which I made the case against on CapX this week. However, the idea that ‘federalism’ will save the UK getting another airing this week – in the Daily Telegraph, of all places.

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