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Westlake Legal Group > The Union

Smith’s sacking is Johnson’s second chance to take the Union with Northern Ireland seriously

Julian Smith’s sacking has been met with widespread dismay on Twitter, where the Northern Ireland Secretary has been praised in many quarters for his performance during quite a short stint in the role.

It’s undoubtedly true that he was in post when Stormont managed to get back on its feet, although given that neither of his predecessors enjoyed a landslide Conservative majority and a Prime Minister who had just jettisoned the Democratic Unionists it is an open question whether his tenure caused this or merely correlated with it.

Regardless, it doesn’t look as if his dismissal has much if anything to do with his job performance. Even if it isn’t true that “everybody in govt agrees Smith did a good job” – and it shouldn’t be – the reason appears to be based on his previous opposition to Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy.

If true, it would be sadly emblematic of the Government’s entire approach to Northern Ireland that it should dismiss a Secretary of State on grounds entirely unrelated to Ulster. However today’s papers also report that the Prime Minister felt “blindsided” by aspects of the deal Smith struck over Stormont, which undercut the Government’s agenda on issues such as veterans and Brexit (as we warned at the time), although this dimension should not be over-stated.

Whatever the truth behind the motivation, the fact remains that this reshuffle represents an opportunity for Johnson to correct a long-standing bad habit of treating the Northern Irish brief as a useful repository for uninspiring loyalists, as May did, or those whom one can’t immediately dismiss but don’t want to place anywhere ‘important’, such as former Chief Whips.

This contributed towards London being comprehensively outplayed by Dublin during the first stage of the Brexit negotiations, with a hapless Theresa May ending up committed to positions based on an extremely ‘maximalist’ interpretation of the Government’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement. This was already contributing to Unionist unease even before Johnson’s decision to abandon his purportedly iron-clad commitment to avoiding an internal border in the United Kingdom.

If the Prime Minister is serious about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union – and that is, at this point, another open question – then he needs to do much more than commission a bit of blue-sky research on an implausible bridge. He needs a coherent Ulster policy, or at the very least to appoint a capable Secretary of State with the expertise and the ability to produce one.

To at least some extent, the warm words for Smith from the likes of Simon Coveney and other elements of Northern Ireland’s devocracy represent just how strong the pressures towards a version of ‘producer capture’ are on the Northern Irish brief. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that a Secretary of State who was more effective at articulating and implementing the British interest (which need neither be selfish nor strategic to be legitimate and real) would be somewhat less popular in some quarters, just as Leo Varadkar’s extremely effective pursuit of Dublin’s interests has made him something of a bête noire amongst unionists.

Combine that with perennial unionist complains about the institutional culture of the Northern Irish Office, and it is clear that any Secretary of State installed without a clear mission and strong grounding on the issues will swiftly succumb to these adverse prevailing winds – at a time when the backstop and Sinn Fein’s surge in the Republic make Ulster’s position more sensitive than it has been in a long time.

Fortunately, Johnson ought not to be without options if he does decide to take this position seriously. It’s easy to have forgotten now but last year there were reports that the Northern Irish brief was, for the first time in decades, actually hotly contested amongst the now-Prime Minister’s supporters. He also has a relatively strong bench amongst the peers, including the likes of Lords Bew and Caine, who could provide Smith’s successor with additional support.

Alternatively he could simply use the position to reward another loyalist (not that sort) with no strong interest in Northern Ireland. But to make up for that he’d have to actually build the bridge, and that isn’t likely to happen.

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Steve Barclay: Tomorrow we will get Brexit done, and start building a better future for every corner of our United Kingdom

Steve Barclay is Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and MP for North East Cambridgeshire.

It will not have escaped ConservativeHome readers that tomorrow we will finally be getting Brexit done. Friday marks the return of the UK as a sovereign, independent nation.

Nearly four years on from the vote to Leave, and after countless hours of debate we have now ratified the Withdrawal Agreement and can finally deliver on that historic referendum.

This will allow us to move forward as one country and focus on issues that for too long have perhaps not received the attention they deserved. The Government can now fully focus on delivering better public services – whether that is by boosting the NHS with the biggest cash injection in its history, building better infrastructure or controlling immigration.

And crucially we will do so in a way which strengthens every corner of our Union. We will leave as one United Kingdom, free to determine our own future and form partnerships with allies and old and new across the globe.

Whilst we do this we will of course build a strong new relationship with the EU. They are our friends and our sovereign equals. And we are not pulling up the drawbridge, but allowing ourselves the ability to do things differently. We are regaining the ability to choose our own destiny.

ConservativeHome readers know that we are taking back control of our borders, laws, money, trade, farming and fisheries. But what does that mean in practice?

Our manifesto was explicit that we will now control our own laws. We will no longer have the European Court of Justice telling British courts how regulations must be interpreted.

We will mobilise the full breadth of our new freedoms – making sure we are at the forefront in encouraging technology and innovation. By leaving the EU’s slow and cumbersome rulebook we will be able to seize the opportunities afforded by new technologies, and to shape our own regulation in an innovative, pro-business way.

For example, EU directives take a minimum of five years from conception to implementation, something which makes it difficult to keep pace with emerging technologies whether that’s in telecoms or things like driverless cars.

When it comes to farming, leaving the outdated, unfair and regressive Common Agricultural Policy will mean we can restructure our subsidy system in a way which rewards productivity and safeguards our environment, rather than the mere ownership of land.

And after Brexit, we will be able to end cruel practices such as the export of live animals for slaughter – something current EU Single Market rules do not allow – and we will be able to introduce smarter and more bespoke rules for our leading financial services sector.

And on certain totemic issues – such as fishing – we will be able to fully control our waters, making sure our new system works in the interests of British fishermen. We will be able to ensure that they regain control of a fair share of British fish stocks, and we will be able to allocate fish quotas in a more environmentally sustainable way.

From this weekend we will finally start a new chapter which allows us to make decisions in a bespoke way, that works in our interests.

Our election promise was get to Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential. This government is doing just that. At the start of this new decade, we can look ahead with confidence to the opportunities Brexit will give us.

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Ed McGuinness: Why the Conservatives should run in Northern Ireland – and why they can win

Ed McGuinness is Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election. He grew up in Belfast.

There is no doubt the thumping majority earned by the Conservatives nationally, and the realisation that the Democratic Unionist Party could no longer be Westminster power brokers, played a much more prominent role in bringing back power sharing last week than the more pressing needs of hard-working nurses or the lack of governance for three years.

Yet it was within hours, back around the Executive table in Stormont, that the new finance minister, Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein, was criticising the British Government, describing the mere £2 billion of funding for the Province as “woefully inadequate”.

Julian Smith, the Northern Irish Secretary, was right to point out that during the 36-month shutdown MLAs who were not even sitting in Parliament Buildings, save for one theatrical display in October 2019, all whilst costing the taxpayer £15 million in salary.

There is a much deeper issue here than the usual efforts eke out that little bit more from London, one that goes right to the heart of the current Northern Irish political culture, defined as it is by an eye for complaint rather than opportunity and which is still centred on traditional Unionist and Nationalist divides.

Sinn Fein, who view the economy on an all-Ireland basis, mention the Assembly must have “strong economic policies.” Great, but which government does not want strong economy polices? Mostly they devote their manifesto to bashing the Tories, bashing Brexit, and spend three pages attempting to justify the need for a border poll on Irish unification despite that a plurality of voters in Northern Ireland voted for pro-Union parties.

The DUP do a little better, at least mentioning the word “economy” more than a handful of times. However, the bulk of the economic section in their manifesto talks about the rest of the UK, mentioning amongst other things: cancelling HS2, building a third runway at Heathrow, and ‘digital infrastructure’. They do talk about having access to Iceland’s renewables through an, “interconnection making landfall in Northern Ireland” (although more hot air courtesy of the DUP is probably not required at this juncture).

All great, but mostly irrelevant when it comes to actually generating wealth and prosperity in the part of the country you are asking voters to let you govern on their behalf – and mostly centred on boosting their pro-Union credentials.

The politics of Northern Ireland is moving on from the bi-polar attitude of the past, where Sinn Fein and the DUP can rely on their Nationalist and Unionist support bases, towards one where voters care, not just about how their public services are run, but about how enterprise and productivity can be improved across the country. The 8.8 per cent rise of the Alliance Party – a party with no outward Nationalist or Unionist core policy – across the country shows this evolution from traditional Northern Irish politics towards a more mainstream style closer to that we experience in the rest of the UK.

This shift presents an opportunity for more conventional, national parties to stand. The argument for why we should do extends beyond offering voters a more diverse choice and political expediency. For the Conservative Party, in particular, for whom the importance of the United Kingdom is woven into our history and values, this presents an opportunity to cement those credentials in a manner that the DUP as a regional party cannot do, particularly as the threat of a second Scottish referendum looms on the horizon.

The arguments for intent therefore are clear, but what about actual opportunity? In 2019 the Conservatives were the only national party to field candidates in Northern Ireland, in four of the eighteen constituencies, so there is a first-mover advantage. In addition the swings away from the traditional parties, of -6.7 per cent and -5.4 per cent for Sinn Fein and the DUP respectively, present an opening that the Conservatives can exploit.

In terms of gaining electoral representation, the vote share across Northern Ireland does not necessarily tell the full story. For opportunity CCHQ need to look at places like North Down and East Belfast where moderate, Conservative policies still chime well with the public.

North Down, for example, which was represented by independent Lady Sylvia Hermon from 2001 to 2019, rejected the DUP in favour of the moderate Alliance Party. Notably the Conservative candidate saw a vote share increase of +2.4 per cent, which was higher than the national vote share increase for the Tories (+1.2 per cent) and much higher than the average Northern Ireland increase (+0.2 per cent).

In terms of Assembly elections, Belfast East provides a great opportunity. At the general election the constituency swung -6.6 per cent from the DUP, mostly in favour of the Alliance Party. The Conservatives did not field a candidate but had they done so, a swing in favour of more mainstream politics would have been evident.

Clearly there is a realism argument here. The numbers and swings to the Conservatives are small, there is no denying it. These kind of seats are won over decade-long campaigns and hard work by activists.

For example, take Blyth Valley, a cornerstone of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’, which crumbled to the Conservatives in 2019. The election swings to the Conservatives in all three previous General Elections was +2.7 per cent, +5.1 per cent, and +15.2 per cent before Ian Levy gained the seat in 2019.

The reasons for this were partly Brexit-related, but also rooted in a deeper disaffection with a system in which Labour took too many of its traditional voters for granted. This created an opportunity for the Tories, and a commitment to invest and build on success, no matter how small initially, paid off. Similar success could be gained in Northern Ireland if the Party shows a like willingness to field candidates and properly resource long-term strategies, focused on the day-to-day concerns of the voters.

Traditional politics in Northern Ireland still means Unionist and Nationalist. The people of Northern Ireland deserve so much more than this bipolar choice when they go to the ballot box – and over the past 32 years there has been a shift away from it.

As the population feels more secure, there is more emphasis being placed on the standards of schools, healthcare, and the productivity gap in Northern Irish industry. Yet the parties there remain entrenched, denying voters their opportunity to choose something better.

As a national party, committed to standing in every seat, the Conservatives can and should offer that choice – and if the strategy is right, have a realistic chance of success too. Not only that, but with a true national voice we can back up our credentials as the Party of the Union (rather than simply another unionist party).

It is time we ended the oligopoly on electoral success in Northern Ireland, upended the traditions of politics there, and offered Ulster’s voters the alternative they deserve.

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Henry Hill: Johnson to spearhead pro-Union strategy with more visits to Scotland

Prime Minister plans more and longer visits north of the border

“Scots are set to see a lot more of Boris Johnson in 2020 as the Prime Minister seeks to strengthen the Union and up the UK Government’s involvement in Scotland”, according to the Herald.

Apparently Boris Johnson is planning on holding more Cabinet meetings north of the border, as well as making more visits and overnight stays, as part of his new and self-appointed role as Minister for the Union. According to one source that spoke to the paper, strengthening the United Kingdom will be one of the Government’s main domestic missions after January 31.

The regular visits serve two purposes. First, it is apparently hoped that Scots will warm to the Prime Minister if they see more of him, rather than merely the version of him that filters down through a broadly hostile political and media class.

Second, they aim to make Scotland appear a normal part of the prime-ministerial beat, rather than gifting the SNP the optics of such jaunts looking like official visits from a foreign potentate or remote “governor general”.

This will apparently fit into a broader effort to deliver a much more joined-up “constitutional strategy” for the Union than has previously been the case, combating a ‘silo mentality’ which has seen individual Whitehall departments operating in isolation. It will apparently also involve the British Government backing (and branding) more things such as infrastructure projects so that the tangible benefits of the Union are more apparent on the ground.

Hopefully this close material engagement will be matched by equally vigorous intellectual engagement with the state of the Union. As I wrote for The Critic this week, Johnson needs to wrest the thought-leadership of unionism away from the die-hard devolutionaries lest he end up defaulting to their non-solutions when the crunch comes, as David Cameron did.

One such figure is Gordon Brown, who popped up this week to insist that the key to keeping Scotland in the UK is yet more constitutional concessions to nationalist premises and the establishment of an elected senate.

Spotlight on Stormont’s lack of opposition

The Northern Ireland Assembly is back, alas. The various local parties might have almost immediately accused Julian Smith of essentially tricking them into returning (the demands for even more money were almost immediate) but too late, they’re committed for now.

With the initial will-they-won’t-theys disposed of, we now know that all five of the Province’s main parties – the pro-UK Demoratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists, the nationalist Sinn Fein and SDLP, and non-aligned Alliance – have taken up ministerial posts in the new Executive.

Yet this means that there will only be a grand total of five MLAs outside the governing coalition: two Greens, one apiece for the Traditional Unionist Voice and People Before Profit (both of which backed Leave, incidentally) and Claire Sugden, an Independent Unionist.

Owen Polley has written in the News Letter about how much easier it will be for ministers to circle the wagons now that the UUP and SDLP are inside the tent, even as Sinn Fein and the DUP are already facing charges of returning to the two-party ‘carve up’ that prevailed prior to the Assembly’s collapse. Meanwhile The Journal offers a different perspective, quoting academics who defend Stormont’s lack of formal oppisition.

It looks as if the best that can be hoped for, for now, is that increased Treasury vigilance over how public money is spent in Ulster – especially as Arlene Foster braces for the official findings on the “cash-for-ash” scandal – can offset the lack of domestic scrutiny.

But with the Northern Irish Office obviously committed to not taking responsibility for the Province, it is not obvious that the Government will have the leverage necessary to drive change through risk-averse, pork-barrelling local leaders.

In other news, the European Union has threatened to impose sanctions if Boris Johnson doesn’t enforce the internal border he has signed up to between Northern Ireland and the mainland, and Stormont’s finance minister is apparently not pursuing a cut in corporation tax.

Scottish Conservatives offers SNP a budget deal

Ever since losing their majority in the 2016 Holyrood elections, the Scottish Nationalists have passed their budgets with the assistance of their separatist allies, the Greens.

This has had the effect of dragging their economic policy somewhat leftwards, and so this year the Scottish Conservatives have drawn up an alternative. Murdo Fraser, the Tories’ shadow finance secretary, is talking up a return to something like the working arrangement that existed between the SNP and the Conservatives during the former’s first period of minority government after taking office in 2007.

In exchange for sparing Scotland various “madcap” Green proposals, the Tories would instead press to keep Scottish taxes harmonised with those in the rest of the UK, as well as a review of business rates. You can read Fraser’s case here.

However it may well be that the Greens end up rowing in behind the SNP regardless – they have previously been criticised for putting separatism before their own environmental agenda when push comes to shove.

In other news, Michelle Ballantyne has confirmed that she is “fighting to win” in the Tory leadership race, despite having initially entered it to prevent a coronation.

This week in the SNP

It’s been another fairly torrid week for the Nationalists. First, Nicola Sturgeon has bowed to MSPs’ demands for a full review into the Scottish education system.

Then an SNP MSP is under fire for refusing to represent constituents who oppose independence, whilst a former Nationalist minister has publicly argued that the First Minister could claim victory even in an unauthorised ‘wildcat’ referendum, arguing that the “political reality” would be independence even if the poll had been boycotted by unionists.

And there’s been a touch of sub-Stalinist history-editing over at the party’s official website, whose ‘History’ page no longer makes any reference whatsoever to Alex Salmond, the man who took them into government in Edinburgh, secured the 2014 referendum, and led the ‘Yes’ campaign. As good a sign as any of how the Nationalist leadership think his upcoming trial will go.

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Henry Hill: Carlaw sets out his stall as the Scottish Tory leadership contest begins

Carlaw kicks off Scottish Conservative leadership contest…

Jackson Carlaw, the interim leader of the Scottish Tories, has launched his bid to win the position full-time with a warning to members about the extent to which the Party might need to change to win power.

The Daily Telegraph reports his saying that “even some well-established” policy areas might need to be jettisoned ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. Plans to set out a ‘blue-collar’ agenda could include dropping the Conservatives’ long-standing opposition to free tuition fees in Scotland, despite the s

Although Carlaw does not support radical change to the Party’s structures, especially the link to the British Tories, he has won the backing of MSPs sympathetic to such ideas such as Murdo Fraser and Adam Tomkins.

Senior party figures were reportedly hoping crown Carlaw in order to avoid spending three of the remaining 15 months before the Holyrood elections focusing inwards. However Michelle Ballantyne, the party’s shadow social security minister and a former nurse, has declared her intention to run if she can get the requisite 100 nominations from the membership. Writing in the Telegraph, she set out how her life experience gives her the very ‘blue-collar’ credibility which Carlaw intends to strive for.

He remains the overwhelming favourite to win. The real question is how he intends to fight the 2021 elections, and whether any candidates who have kept their powder dry this time might push for the leadership in the event of a disappointing result.

…as Scotland makes its present felt in the Labour leadership battle

The launch of the Labour leadership contest was remarkable, in part, for the almost complete absence of Scotland from analysis about the party’s election defeat and its path back to power.

Happily this is no longer the case, but the resultant debate has put a spotlight on a long-standing but growing division within the party about – or indeed, whether – to combat Scottish nationalism.

In an interview on Good Morning Scotland Jess Phillips set out her opposition both to Scottish independence and to another referendum on the question. She added that, in her view, Labour has suffered for not having clear stances on key issues such as independence and Brexit – and is probably aware that the party’s remaining Scottish vote leans heavily towards the Union.

Another strongly pro-UK candidate, this time for the deputy position, is Ian Murray, the MP for Edinburgh South. He has held his seat amidst two Scottish Labour wipe-outs in part by distancing himself from the wider party – at least one of his leaflets apparently featured endorsements from the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph but not the Labour logo.

Murray has actually refused to rule out creating a separate Scottish party, although he has not ruled it in either. This idea has been more forcefully advocated by Monica Lennon, the Scottish Labour health spokesperson, who believes that the reason for the party’s poor performance is that it is a ‘branch office’ of the UK party. There is frankly not much evidence for this, but an external scapegoat for political woes is not normally a difficult sell.

Clive Lewis has gone even further. Writing in the pro-independence National newspaper, he backed not only a separate Scottish party but also argued that the UK party should not stand in the way of another independence referendum should the Scottish Government seek one. Meanwhile a Scottish trades union leader has urged Labour to go so far as backing independence.

Johnson stands firm against Sturgeon’s referendum demand

The Prime Minister has hit out at the Scottish Nationalists, accusing them of fixating on independence in order to distract from their “abundant failures” in government north of the border. Boris Johnson highlighted critical areas such as schools and education where the Scottish Parliament has overseen falling standards.

Meanwhile Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, has confirmed that he has received a request for a second referendum from Nicola Sturgeon.

However he has reportedly said that it would be “completely wrong” to give the Scottish Parliament authority to hold binding votes on separation whenever it wishes, arguing that this would lead to a series of ‘neverendums’ wherein the SNP simply re-staged the vote until they finally won.

This is correct, but the case against actually runs deeper than that. As I have written previously, granting Holyrood the power to quit the Union whenever it wishes actually undermines what even the most mercenary federalist deems one of the UK’s core functions: the pooling and sharing of resources. The fate of the British State must always ultimately rest in the hands of the British Parliament.

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Henry Hill: What the election tells us about the Tory position in Wales and Scotland

During the election this column put a spotlight on what the pollsters, commentators, and activists were predicting about the state of the election in Scotland and Wales.

On polling day itself, I highlighted the divisions between YouGov’s MRP model, which was playing an enormous role in shaping coverage of the election (mine included), and alternative sources.

A week on, we’re now in a position to take a look at the actual results and consider what it means for the Party – and the nation.

Welsh Conservatives pull it off

Let’s start with the good news. The Welsh Tories had a great night, picking up six seats – which is exactly the number we reported from local sources back at the start of the campaign.

The party picked up Bridgend, Delyn, Clwyd South, Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham, and Ynys Môn (Anglesey), as well as regaining Brecon & Radnorshire, which the Party lost to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election earlier this year. That last is significant because it opens up the possibility of wiping out the Lib Dems’ last Assembly seat in the near future.

Boris Johnson has thus matched Margaret Thatcher’s haul of 14 Welsh seats – and with room for growth. The Tories came within 1,000 votes of winning in both Alyn & Deeside and Newport West, and within 2,000 in Gower, Newport East, and Plaid-held Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

The results also highlight how, as in England, the nature of the Conservative coalition is changing. The Party is now second-placed in a a huge swath of Labour-held valleys seats and Plaid-held western seats, and is actually competitive somewhere like Torfaen, which in the Eighties returned Labour majorities of almost 20,000. If they can successfully woo those voters who went to the Brexit Party this time – and that is not guaranteed – there is a chance that the Conservatives could actually be competitive in parts of Welsh Labour’s remaining heartlands.

Meanwhile the Iron Lady’s 1983 landslide saw three Tories returned for Cardiff, whereas Johnson’s party went backwards in Cardiff North, the only seat in the city it has won in recent times. A weakness in urban seats is another thing the Welsh Party now shares with its English counterpart.

Overall the results were a vindication of the optimistic portrait painted by Professor Roger Awan-Scully’s ‘Welsh Political Barometer’ survey, who has written that a “quiet Tory revolution” is underway in the Principality.

Scottish Tories overtaken

Now the bad news. It was obviously an disappointing night for the Scottish Conservatives, who ended up losing seven of their 13 seats to fall to just six.

These confirm that the Party’s modern heartlands are much the same as in their previous period of strength. They retained all three Borders seats (Dumfries & Galloway; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale; and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk), thus sparing the blushes of Alister Jack, the current Scottish Secretary, and his predecessor, David Mundell.

Otherwise the remaining retentions were all in the North East of Scotland, with the Party holding on to Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine, Banff & Buchan; and Moray, although it lost Gordon and Aberdeen South.

Unlike Wales, this is a vindication of YouGov’s MRP model, which ended up forecasting the Tories to hold eight seats in Scotland.

The question I posed in last week’s column is whether, or how, this could be right despite the overwhelming impression on the ground that the Scottish Conservatives had the wind in their sails. In the event the results squared the circle: there were actually swings to the Tories in almost every seat. Looking at a national map of Con-Lab swings one might expect a strong Conservative result north of the border.

What happened is the the SNP took in even more overs, overtaking the Conservatives even where the latter improved their performance. This was abetted by the collapse of Scottish Labour (YouGov actually forecast something like a recovery in its final model), who retained only a single seat.

I noted after YouGov’s first MRP poll that it appeared to be showing a lack of unionist tactical voting in Scotland, and so it proved. Perhaps because of Brexit, Labour and Lib Dem voters did not prove willing to transfer to the Conservatives in sufficient numbers – and it may be that they actually backed the SNP on the basis of their pro-Remain campaign.

Meanwhile even Tory voters, surely the most likely to vote tactically against the Nationalists, largely refused to do so. Whilst they rowed in behind the Lib Dems in North East Fife, helping to take it off the SNP, they refused to back Jo Swinson, who lost East Dunbartonshire by a couple of hundred votes whilst the Conservative candidate took more than 7,000.

Debate has already started on what this means for the Union. With a majority government its important not to overstate things – people expected the SNP to dominate the 2015 Parliament, but prior to the Brexit referendum they were a bit of a non-factor as the Government had the votes it needed to govern. Likewise, there is little evidence that the Nationalists’ Westminster showing signals a breakthrough for the cause of independence cause.

Strategically the Prime Minister does hvae some decisions to make – as our editor pointed out this morning when he called for a ‘Department for the Union‘. He will also come under pressure to abandon the Conservatives’ hard-line stance against granting another independence referendum, although as I have written previously there is a very strong practical and moral case for such a moratorium.

But there are also a couple of positive notes. First, the fact the Tories held their ground even in the absence of tactical voting suggests their voters might be well on the way to becoming actual Conservative voters, as opposed to borrowed pro-UK voters. Second, with Johnson harking back to a pre-Thatcherite approach to public spending his Government could end up closing the alleged “values gap” which has for so long served as one of the justifications for devolution and independence.

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The Politics of And. Securing the Majority. 3) Wanted: a Department for the Union

he phrase is Tim Montgomerie’s.  He used to deploy it roughly as follows.  Yes, politics means making choices.  But they doesn’t always have to be either/or.  The Conservatives can have immigration control and international development.  Green growth and more fracking.  Same-sex marriage and transferable tax allowances.

The new majority Tory Government won’t necessarily smile on these examples.  But it will want to follow the principle.  To this end, ConservativeHome is reviving The Politics Of And.  In one series, we will examine Securing the Majority.  In another, Growing the Majority.  Boris Johnson will want to do both.

– – –

So Cimate Change is to come out of the Business Department. And Trade to go back in.  And DfID to go back into the Foreign Office.  And immigration to come out of the Home Office.  Or so the briefing tells us.

Yet nothing very much is apparent yet on how to respond to the bad Conservative election result in Scotland.  The Party is down by seats by more than half – from 13 to six.

It’s all the other way round in Wales, where the Tory representation is up from eight seats to fourteen.  The Party won 36 per cent of the vote, only five per cent less than Labour.

Meanwhile, the two main parties in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, performed poorly.  As David Shiels noted recently on this site, the province saw an anti-Brexit, anti-absentionist vote.

Leaving the EU will see new opportunities and challenges for the United Kingdom as a whole.

In Scotland, the new Government says No to a second independence referendum.  Good.  That argument will be harder to sustain if the SNP sweep the board in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.

In Wales, the new Secretary of State, Simon Hart, and the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly have new opportunities in a country whose electoral flavour is now more like, say, the Midlands than Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, there will be a settlement that leaves the province in much of the Single Market and with new east-west regulatory provision,

The new Government needs to think and act across the three territorial departments.

It also needs to harmonise whatever it does with continuing reform in England, which now hosts a sprawling patchwork of councils, mayors, police and crime commissioners.

Downing Street is mulling Lords reform to to give the UK’s constituent nations a greater stake at Westminster.  Reform will be part of the remit of the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission announced in the manifesto.

Who will be in charge of shaping the Government’s response?  There is a Minister for the Constitution – Chloe Smith, now re-elected with an increased majority in Norwich North.

She is part of the Cabinet Office team, at the head of which sits Michael Gove who, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has been in charge of No Deal preparations.

He will require a new role after January 31.

So the obvious move is to make him Secretary of State for the Constitution, leading the media fightback against the SNP, forming policy for the UK as a whole and perhaps continuing working out of the Cabinet Office.

We have published 15 ways to Strengthen the Union and Jack Airey of Policy Exchange has written on this site about the Union and infrastucture.

There is interest in Downing Street in some of these ideas, such as promoting the Union more proactively, and one move it might make it is to appoint Lord Caine to the Northern Ireland Office. Or to this new department.

We must resist the urge to recommend Gove as the solution to every presentational and policy problem.

But it is hard to think of another senior politician at Cabinet level with the necessary policy and presentational oomph, and who can work with the Welsh Conservatives, plus Jackson Carlaw and the Scottish Tories.

There may also be new post-Brexit opportunities for the Party in Northern Ireland.  For example, it is clear that there is a potential opening for a non-DUP pro-Union party in North Down.

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Andy Maciver: Johnson must change the Scottish Conservatives’ policy on a second independence referendum

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters and a former Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservatives.

Westlake Legal Group Maggie-Simpson-300x158 Andy Maciver: Johnson must change the Scottish Conservatives’ policy on a second independence referendum Unionism The Union SNP Scottish referendum Scottish independence Scottish Conservatives Scotland Nicola Sturgeon MSP nationalism Highlights Devolution Conservative strategy Comment Brexit Boris Johnson MP   A new movie hit theatres late on Thursday. Landslide 2: The return of Maggie Simpson, follows on from the 2015 original, when Britain’s electoral map first bore a striking resemblance to the cartoon character. Having abandoned their plans for a sequel in 2017, the nationalist directors of the franchise, although not quite perfecting the shade of yellow on Maggie’s face, have benefited from stronger performances from the blue actors in the south to create the starkest difference we have yet seen.

Away from the movies, we hear cries of ‘constitutional crisis’. I tend to find this slightly exaggerated, but what is certainly true is that we are at a constitutional crossroads once again.

A decade ago, the protagonists were Alex Salmond and David Cameron. Readers of this website may not like to admit it, but the truth is that Salmond came out on top of that contest. Scotland may have voted No in 2014, but it did so narrowly and after a calamitous campaign, led by Downing Street on the advice of past-it peers and people who only went to Scotland on day-trips, which through its unthinking adherence to the constitutional status quo pushed people into the waiting arms of the nationalists. They have never come back.

Boris Johnson does not have the luxury that Cameron enjoyed; he won’t get a second chance to get Scotland right. If there is another referendum, it’ll be the last one, and it will happen on Johnson’s watch. He will now, almost certainly, be the Prime Minister who will either lose Scotland, or kill nationalism.

How does he ensure that he achieves the latter outcome?

He must understand and accept three fundamentals.

The first is that he can’t be a fair-weather democrat. He should be able to relate to this, easily, through his experience of Brexit. His victory last Thursday means he will now implement the democratic will of the people, by leaving the EU. The winners will win, and the losers will lose – that’s democracy.

We can hold a mirror up to respecting Brexit and see in it respecting Indyref 2. To do this we must ignore the hysterical wailing from some in the Scottish Tory Party who have perfected contortionism in their attempt to claim that perpetually denying another referendum is the democratic outcome.

The SNP’s current mandate is vague, and the strongest iteration of it, in my view, comes from June 2016, when the UK’s Brexit vote fulfilled the SNP’s winning manifesto criteria from the month before (Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will). Last Thursday’s mandate is far weaker for a variety of reasons, primarily that some now-MPs pulled ‘loaned’ votes by making clear that it was not a vote for Indyref 2, and because the SNP’s primary platform was to stop Brexit.

But none of these arguments will pass muster if the SNP wins the 2021 Scottish Parliament election – the most important there has ever been – with a clear and unqualified manifesto commitment for a second independence referendum.

You can’t demand to get Brexit done because voters asked for it whilst demanding that Indyref 2 be continually rejected despite voters asking for it.

The second way to ensure a better outcome is to understand that the current Scottish Tory position – vote for us and we will stop Indyref 2 – is a vote-losing, party-killing, Union-ending continuation of the same Scottish strategy the Party has had for 40 years.

The Conservative Party has never, ever, been ahead of the curve on Scotland. It has been in permanent reactive mode: oppose devolution and then support it after it’s already happened; create the Calman Commission to appease the nationalists after they win in 2011; create the Smith Commission to appease them after they almost win in 2014.

Since then, its ‘no to Indyref 2’ strategy – designed to expand its support by encouraging Labour unionists to lend their vote to the Tories – has ridden the crest of the wave and at times propelled them to almost 30 per cent in the polls. But those in the bubble need to understand that on Thursday night the bubble burst. The strategy failed; it now amounts to a core-vote strategy because the ultra-Unionist vote has probably been maximised.

The Scottish Tories now need to change their position to one which is more credible, more democratic, and has a better chance of success in 2021, and if up here they can’t see the wood for the trees, Johnson should change it for them.

Their position has been ‘vote for us and we will stop Indyref 2’. They should alter it ahead of 2021 to ‘vote for us or we will not be able to stop Indyref 2’. In other words, the Party should acknowledge that a mandate in 2021 will have to be respected, and there will have to be another independence referendum, so if you don’t want one then you had better vote Tory.

This is just as compelling for the core vote, but the respect it would show for Scottish democracy would also extract the maximum number of Labour and Lib Dem voters who would be prepared to coalesce around the strongest unionist voice.

Johnson would likely find common ground with Nicola Sturgeon on this. It is often misunderstood by the London media that Sturgeon is currently calling for something she doesn’t want (a referendum in 2020) and getting in response something she does want (a grievance-stoking ‘No’). It is an open secret up here that she and her advisers are worried that, despite Boris and Brexit being their perfect storm, the pro-independence numbers are too weak to be confident of success in 2020. They want more time. They need more time. Johnson could give them more time by setting them the test of winning in 2021, whilst also damaging the grievance agenda.

This is where the third fundamental becomes relevant. The Tory Party has now spent so many years obsessing about Indyref 2 that it seems to have lost all confidence that it can actually win the damn thing. With that, the message it is sending is that it has lost all confidence in the Union as a winning force.

There is no question that there are some strong fundamentals in place for nationalists – demographics being the most obvious one.

But unionists need to stop being so negative and paranoid about their own upsides. There are three significant ones. First, Scotland is constitutionally fatigued, and by the time Brexit has settled will be both weary and wary of more change.

Second, the SNP’s position on rejoining the EU could easily become toxic when we start discussing a customs border at Gretna.

Finally, if Johnson’s government avoids the mistakes of Cameron’s, and runs a campaign based on a strategic vision of what devolution will look like in the much longer-term, he will give Scottish people what they have always wanted but have never been offered – the ‘something in the middle’ option.

Boris Johnson will go down as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland. Or he will go down as the Prime Minister who ‘won big’ on the two biggest constitutional conundrums of the century. There’s nothing in between, anymore.

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David Shiels: A bad election for Ulster unionism, but not an auger of a border poll

Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.

The outcome of the election in Northern Ireland was not good for the Conservative Party’s erstwhile confidence and supply partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The party lost two of its seats in Belfast and failed to gain another seat in North Down, where it had expected to win, leaving it with a total of eight seats (down from ten last time).

While it is difficult to compare this election to past elections because of various pacts and some smaller parties not standing, the DUP’s overall share of the vote fell by 5.4 per cent from 2017, though it is higher than the share in 2015. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, Unionists no longer have a majority of MPs at Westminster. Sinn Fein again have seven MPs, while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are back in Westminster with two MPs.

The Alliance Party’s victory in North Down – where the DUP expected to win – was a big moment of election night and follows the ‘Alliance surge’ seen in the local and European elections earlier this year. The party identifies as neither nationalist nor unionist but is strongly anti-Brexit. The Conservative Party only fielded candidates in four seats but its small vote recovered a bit since 2017 in those seats.

The results of the election have implications for Brexit and for the future of unionism and nationalism. Symbolically, the loss of their majority at Westminster was a blow for DUP. Overall, Northern Ireland now has a majority of anti-Brexit MPs which better reflects the majority but sets it further apart from England and Wales.

At this election the DUP had the worst of all worlds, taking the flak for its stance on Brexit and relationship with the Conservative Party while also having to campaign against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. The party returns to Westminster a diminished force, without its kingmaker status and now coming to terms with the reality of a Brexit deal it does not like.

The greatest blow was the defeat of the party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds in North Belfast following a particularly bitter campaign in the seat. The existence of an anti-DUP pact – dressed up as a Remainer pact – in the Belfast seats made the task difficult but the party did not really know how to appeal beyond its declining base. The response of party leader Arlene Foster – who said that ‘the demography was against us’ – has been criticised for its lack of self-reflection (and ignoring the fact that Unionists had a pact of their own in two seats). There are murmurings about her leadership.

The DUP also lost South Belfast to the SDLP and saw its majority drop to 1819 in East Belfast, its only remaining seat in the city. Elsewhere, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was unable to reclaim the border seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Sinn Fein despite the DUP standing aside and the potential appeal of an anti-abstention message.

Sinn Fein’s victory in North Belfast allows it to save face after a disappointing performance elsewhere. The republican party’s overall share of the vote fell by 6.7 per cent since 2017 and it lost the seat of Foyle to the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood. Here the SDLP’s strong anti-abstentionist message was clearly effective and suggests that the primary challenge to Sinn Fein abstention is coming from within nationalism itself, rather than from unionism. As the sole representative from a border seat to take his seat in the Commons, Eastwood will provide an important perspective to the debates on Brexit.

In a way the DUP MPs will probably be grateful for the SDLP and Alliance presence at Westminster since it means they will not take all the responsibility for a situation that is beyond their control.

Overall, the Alliance Party was vindicated for its decision to field candidates in every seat and not to participate in any pact. The party came third in terms in overall votes, up 8.8per cent since 2017, and it now has a presence in areas where it had not done so previously. Undoubtedly the party was helped by its strong anti-Brexit message but it was also the beneficiary of a dissatisfaction with the two main parties.

What happens next? While there is inevitable speculation about a border poll, this is not something that either London or Dublin will want to contemplate yet. Certainly the issue is less pressing than the SNP’s demand for an independence referendum in Scotland. The drop in support for Sinn Fein – the party which had been most vocal in calling for a border poll – was telling and suggests that even Nationalist voters are unenthusiastic about having one soon. The combined nationalist party vote share remained under 40 percent which would not be translated into a majority for Irish unity. Alliance have refused to endorse a poll and will not want to unsettle voters who have switched to them from the Unionist parties.

In the short term the election results may force the DUP and Sinn Fein to get serious about return to power-sharing. The London and Dublin Governments see a ‘significant opportunity’ to address the issue and are likely to put pressure on the parties to come to an agreement. January will mark three years since the collapse of the Stormont Executive and the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, has said he will call new Assembly elections if there is no agreement by January 13. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein might prefer to make the necessary compromises needed to return to an Executive and put off facing the electorate again until a later date.

As far as Brexit is concerned, there might be an incentive for the parties to return to Stormont to have an input into the work of the Specialised Committee tasked with overseeing the new Protocol on Northern Ireland. Based on current figures the Unionist parties are unlikely to win a majority in the Assembly to overturn the arrangements.

What of the future of Unionism? As I pointed out in my mini-series on the Union during the election campaign, the Unionist parties are still adjusting to the fact that they no longer speak for the majority in Northern Ireland.

There are those within the DUP and the UUP who believe that ‘Unionist unity’ is the way forward. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, likely to become the DUP’s Westminster leader after Dodds’ defeat, and a possible successor to Arlene Foster as overall leader, has said that voters were tired of ‘inter-Unionist squabbling’ and blamed the ‘splintering of Unionist votes’ for the Alliance victory in North Down. But it is not clear that greater cooperation between the Unionist parties or even a merger between the parties would be more successful.

Brexit is coming at a time when the political landscape in Northern Ireland is changing and it will take some time for the long-term implications to be revealed.

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“Get out of London.” Now watch Johnson and Cummings turn the world upside down. Or try to.

“You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich Remainers’.” (Dominic Cummings, September 2019.)

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Britain’s political and economic model from Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to David Cameron had roughly the following in common.

A dominant capital city, London, with its south-eastern hinterland.  A flourishing City of London.  An economy based on services rather than manufacturing.  A high level of immigration, at least recently, to service its needs – both internally and externally.  Pressure in this wider South East on schools, hospitals, roads, rail, cohesion, and especially the price of housing.

An Ascendancy class of civil servants, lawyers, journalists, academics, and media workers doing well out of this system, whichever of the main parties governed.  Government focus on message and spin to feed the London-based newspapers and media.  A recent Ministerial and Whitehall preoccupation with Parliament, reflecting the unwillingness of voters to elect a government with a strong majority since 2005 – and the increasing rebelliousness of backbenchers.  A currency that some believe to have been overvalued (further reinforcing this system).

Outside this greater South East, a provincial Britain in relative or sometimes absolute recession.  A growing gulf between its view of this system’s success and London’s.  A sense that it has done less well out of the growth of the capital city, the universities, the media, services, the law – and infrastructure spending.  A less favourable view of immigration.  Less expensive housing but also lower wages.  Skills and employment gaps.

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All this is about to change – at least, if a new post-Brexit Conservative Government based broadly on Thursday’s results, serving at least two terms and with Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in place, has its way.

Perhaps wrongly, I read the briefing in much of Sunday’s papers about the new Government’s intentions as Classic Dom.  In the short to medium term, expect to see the following:

  • Less of a focus on Parliament and the media.  Johnson has a majority of the best part of a hundred.  He won the election despite, even arguably because of, intense media scrutiny, opposition and pressure.  I suspect that the Prime Minister won’t care much what Labour, which is likely to vanish into chaotic opposition for the best part of a year, or the Liberal Democrats, who have just lost their leader, do or say in the Commons, at least for the moment. Furthermore, Philip Hammond, Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve* and his most persistent critics are no longer there.  And Cummings won’t be remotely flustered by what’s said on a Today programme or a Newsnight or by an Andrew Neil that, in his view, only the Westminster Village bubble is bothered about.
  • A Government restructuring to concentrate on delivery.  Johnson and Cummings thus won’t worry too much if Ministers flounder in the Commons or TV studios – at least in the early part of this Parliament.  They will want delivery, delivery, delivery for the new blue seats in the Midlands and North.  That will mean tearing up the Government reshaping undertaken by Nick Timothy for Theresa May and starting all over again.  Briefing that Business and Trade will be amalgamated; that the Environment and Climate Change, a Johnson and Carrie Symonds preoccupation, will again have its own department, and that the Foreign Office will absorb much of DfId sounds about right.  A post-January post-Brexit reshuffle will reveal all.
  • Ministers appointed to govern rather than perform.  Monday’s reshuffle will see gaps filled at Culture – which will have an important role with regard to digital and the media – and Wales.  I expect the bigger January shuffle to see Cabinet Ministers appointed who Number Ten expects to work with outsiders to transform Whitehall.  There will be a big emphasis on NHS spending, police numbers, border control, northern infrastructure, skills and, maybe especially, Cummings’ spoor: the words “Invest in Science”.The sort of names to look out for include Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak, Oliver Dowden, Robert Jenrick, Jesse Norman, maybe Chris Skidmore and the rehabilitated Michael Gove.
  • Expect the unexpected.  All those are men.  Johnson will want to appoint a lot of women – an intention made all the more intriguing by the fact that many of the Ministers currently being tipped for the sack are female.  The most senior women outside Cabinet itself are Esther McVey, Caroline Dinenage and Lucy Frazer, who could easily slot into one of the Law Officer posts.  But there is no way of knowing what Johnson, Cummings, Downing Street and the Whips will come up with. And other names in the mix include Victoria Atkins, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and a revitalised Penny Mordaunt.  Cummings’ instinct will be to bring in good outsiders as Ministers and promote quickly from the massive new intake of Tory MPs if necessary – over the head of convention and perhaps advice.

There are some oddities about bits of the briefing, or at least parts of what’s being written.  For example, if a new department for Borders and Security is to be set up, what becomes of the Home Office – which under the Theresa May/Timothy reforms became a department for security and borders?  Is it to be amalgamated once again with the Justice Department?  Might Johnson want to mull reviving an updated Lord Chancellor’s department?

And if the SNP is to campaign for a second independence referendum, with Northern Ireland undergoing huge post-Brexit change, wouldn’t it make sense to have a Secretary of State and department for the Union – perhaps headed by the ubiquitious Gove?  What becomed of the traditional power of the Treasury?

Finally, Johnson could do all the restructuring and appointing available to him with his near three-figure majority…and find that the economic and political model he inherited is too entrenched to be shifted.  Because the commanding heights of our culture have so big a stake in it that they won’t willingly let it go.  Buy your ringside seat now for the clash between the Ascendancy’s instincts and Cummings’ Nietzschean plans. With Johnson refereeing.

– – –

* Mr Grieve…we’ll see what he is right about.” (Cummings, August 2019.)

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