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Henry Hill: GERS Day: Scottish Government’s own statistics punch fresh hole in the case for independence

Unionists pounce as Scottish Government data reveals huge deficit

This week has marked one of the big events in the constitutional debate calendar: GERS Day. This is when the Scottish Government publish the annual figures for ‘Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland’.

GERS – which, again, are compiled by the Scottish Government – at one point formed the basis of the SNP’s prospectus for independence. But these days they’re enough to whip the separatist movement into a frenzy.

Why? Because they reveal that the distribution of wealth around the UK creates a ‘Union dividend’ for every Scot worth almost £2,000 a year, calculated from the amount extra that Scotland receives in public expenditure versus what it generates in revenue.

They also show that Scotland is currently running a public account deficit seven times higher than that of the UK as a whole. Were it an independent country it would have amongst the highest in the EU, and the Scottish Government would face an unenviable choice between swingeing public service cuts or eye-watering tax rises – probably both. No wonder the Scottish Conservatives have accused Nicola Sturgeon of going into hiding.

Unionists have not been slow to jump on these figures: Kevin Hague is the man to follow for number crunching, but Sam Taylor of pro-Union group These Islands has also written up a handy explainer on the benefits of the UK common market for Reaction.

But although the latest GERS figures are undoubtedly a boon to unionists fighting off what might be the imminent prospect of another independence referendum, they do highlight a strategic weakness in the pro-UK case: that it is so dependent on cash transfers and other, rather mercenary benefits. What will they campaign of if (when?) Scotland becomes a net contributor, and is asked to fund fiscal transfers to other parts of the UK?

Electoral Commission trips up the push for a Scottish referendum

But the GERS figures weren’t the only snares to trip the campaign for a re-run of the 2014 plebiscite on independence this week. Two more were laid, this time by the Electoral Commission.

First, the Commission wrote to MSPs to tell them that it would need to assess the wording of the question in any referendum – even if the wording was identical to the previous one. This opens the door for them rejecting a ‘Yes/No’ question, which pro-UK campaigners insist unfairly benefited the independence campaign in 2014.

It could also mean that the question might be altered to refer to both what might be gained and what would be lost, again in line with the new standards set in 2016. The EU referendum wording (“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”) thus offered a more complete picture of the proposition than that on the ballot paper in Scotland two years previously (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”).

A more muscular approach to such questions by unionists is long overdue. David Cameron adopted a strategy of conceding to the SNP more than he needed to – on both the wording and timing of the referendum – in the hope that it would settle the issue. This was a mistake.

Further to its need to assess the wording, the Commission has also informed the Scottish Government that there ought to be nine months between the completion of any legislation to conduct another referendum and polling day. The Guardian reports that this could scotch proposals to hold another plebiscite next year – although the far bigger hurdle seems to be that the legislation has only been tabled in the Scottish Parliament, which has no authority to authorise one.

Corbyn doubles down on wooing separatists

Last week, this column covered how civil war has broken out inside the Labour Party after both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell appeared to rewrite the Opposition’s policy on Scottish independence and declared that they would not stand in the way of another vote.

One week on and, despite some apparent back-tracking on whether or not Labour would seek an arrangement with the SNP in the Commons, the issue hasn’t gone away. Indeed, not only has Corbyn doubled down on his willingness to allow another independence referendum, but ITV report him saying that he wouldn’t be a barrier to one in Wales, giving a shot of publicity and credibility to what remains a very marginal campaign in the Province.

Not coincidentally, the Express revealed that the Labour leadership were in talks with the SNP about collaborating against No Deal at Westminster. The SNP’s willingness to install Corbyn as caretaker Prime Minister has also given them a stick with which to beat the Liberal Democrats – one reason why I suggested this week that the Nationalists might be the real, and indeed only, winners of abortive attempts to set up an anti-Brexit ’emergency government’.

News in Brief:

  • Deep concern in SNP over prospect of cybernat party – The Times
  • Johnson accuses Brussels of jeopardising peace in Ulster – Daily Telegraph
  • Scottish Government failed to audit £500,000 paid to Salmond – Daily Record
  • Pro-UK group call for ‘truth commission’ to fact-check referendum campaigns – The Scotsman
  • PSNI call for ‘progress’ after republican bomb attempt – BBC
  • Tycoon lambasts Scottish Government over ‘expropriated’ shipyard – FT

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Iain Dale: There are good ministers left behind by the Government’s drastic shuffle

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

The reshuffle is finally complete. Looking through the final line-up of ministers in each department it’s clear that this really wasn’t just a reshuffle, it was a clearing of the decks. The number of non-Boris supporters left in government is minimal, although the balance of Remainers versus Leavers is still uncomfortable for some. Some of the decisions, though, are quite baffling.

Why on earth would anyone think it a good idea to move Robin Walker from the Brexit department to be a minister in both the Scottish and Northern Irish offices? Why wasn’t keen Boris supporter and superb media performer Nadhim Zahawi promoted to Minister of State? He goes out to bat in the media where angels fear to tread, and whenever I see him I greet him by saying: “Ah, it’s the Minister for Sticky Wickets.” There are plenty more strange appointments and injustices I could mention.

Looking through all the different departments, I’d say the strongest ministerial line-ups are at Business, Education and the Home Office. There is strength in depth in all three departments.

There are a few names in the ministerial list, where you look at them and scratch your head in bewilderment. I’ll spare their blushes here…

– – – – – – – – – –

Two junior appointments caught the eye and, in a way, they reflect what I said about the Prime Minister recently – that he’ll be a shit or bust prime minister – either brilliant or utterly useless. The appointment of Zac Goldsmith as an Environment Minister and Nadine Dorries to the Department of Health will, in retrospect, be seen as inspired or whatever the opposite of inspired is. Both have the ability to really shine, but many will suspect they won’t have the self-discipline to curb their natural rebellious natures. We’ll soon see. Nadine has mental health under her policy remit. She has the personality to really make a difference here. I remember another junior minister hailing from Liverpool who was sent to the Department of Health in the late 1980s. We all remember what happened to Edwina Currie, but we forget the fact that until her resignation she had been doing a brilliant job in promoting public health.

– – – – – – – – – –

Some of the stories I have heard about the way the government was formed are hair-raising indeed. There were stand-up rows in Number Ten with ministers who had assumed they were going to be promoted to a higher rank than they were offered. Flounces were had. Tanties were experienced. I could name names, but apart from satisfying readers’ prurience I’m not sure what purpose it would serve.

One of the interesting things about this government will be to see how CCHQ operates. As I understand it, the new co-chairman Ben Elliott is in control of things day to day and is effectively the replacement for Sir Mick Davies, who departed last week as chief executive. James Cleverly will take on a much more front-facing role and become the Minister for the Today Programme. In some ways this is the more traditional role for the chairman. Going back to the 1980s and 1990s the chairman would effectively be the lightning rod for the Prime Minister. Being a co-chairman, though, is never quite the same as being Chairman on your own. I understand James wasn’t consulted about having a co-chairman and I do wonder how this relationship will pan out.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’m writing this in my rather inglorious student digs in Edinburgh, where I’m spending the next ten days hosting my ‘Iain Dale – All Talk’ show at the Fringe. Yesterday was the first day of previews and I hosted two shows featuring three ex Conservative Party Chairmen: Sayeeda Warsi, followed by Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis. If James Cleverly is reading this, he now knows what lies in store for him! Both shows went well, with, I think, the right mix of light and shade. It was just a relief to get the first day done with. This evening I’ve got new Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer and Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey. It’ll be interesting to see how on message Johnny Mercer can stay. I do hope ministerial office doesn’t ruin his natural enthusiasm and sense of mischief. As regards Len McCluskey, one thing I do want to know is this. A friend of mine was in his office recently and noticed he has two chess sets on display. One I can understand, but two? It’s a bit like Boris writing two articles on Brexit before deciding which way to jump. Sort of.

– – – – – – – – – –

As you read this, I might face an enormous logistical challenge. If the Liberal Democrats have won the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, their new leader Jo Swinson will naturally want to visit to reflect in the glory. However, she’s due to be with me in Edinburgh at 6pm. I do hope the Lib Dem ops team are on form, otherwise I’ll be having a conversation with myself.

If you’re in Edinburgh between now and 11 August do pop along to see my show. The full guest line-up can be found here.

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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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Ex-PM: BoJo may end up the first Prime Minister of England

Westlake Legal Group bojo-hands Ex-PM: BoJo may end up the first Prime Minister of England Wales United Kingdom The Blog Scotland Republic of Ireland Northern Ireland no-deal Brexit Leo Varadkar European Union Brexit Boris Johnson backstop

The comment’s a few days old, but as prophecy it might be gaining some traction. Boris Johnson has gone on a tour of the United Kingdom to build support for his no-retreat strategy on Brexit, only to find little unity among the other three nations of the union. As Gordon Brown quipped last week, Brexit might take on a whole new meaning, and even Johnson’s Tory colleagues wonder about it:

May’s de facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington, told the BBC this month that the union “would be under much greater strain in the event of a no-deal.”

He added, “My view comes not just from Scottish nationalism and pressure for Irish unification — it comes from indifference among English opinion to the value of the union.”

Gordon Brown, a former Labour Party prime minister, said at an event in London last week that Johnson could be remembered “not as the 55th prime minister of the U.K. but as the first prime minister of England.”

Now that Johnson has wrapped up his first four-nations tour, the returns suggest that disunity may become a very big problem if a hard Brexit takes place on Halloween. Johnson got booed in Wales and Scotland, the latter of which intends to push a new independence referendum in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Johnson stayed away from public forums on his visit to Northern Ireland, but the political parties in deadlock over forming an executive showed a lot more consensus when it came to Johnson’s Brexit plans:

The party leaders were united on one thing: They warned Johnson that his threat to take Britain out to the European Union without a deal, without a trade pact or a transition period, was folly, or worse.

“We are in a crisis, and Brexit is adding to the chaos,” said Naomi Long, a leader of the Alliance Party.

Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein president, said Johnson’s plan for a no-deal Brexit has increased the likelihood that the United Kingdom will splinter — by boosting the case for Irish reunification.

“Traditionally, the argument and the discourse has been between green and orange, between Irishness and Britishness. But Brexit changed that and added a new dimension, a critical dimension, which is European or not? Inside the European Union or not?” McDonald told BBC Radio on Wednesday morning.

The hard-left Sinn Féin warned Johnson that a hard Brexit will trigger a plebescite on Irish reunification. The Northern Ireland vote on Brexit had been solidly negative in 2016, and the worries over the impact on the Good Friday agreement has only made it less popular:

It would be “unthinkable” if a no-deal Brexit was not followed by a poll on Irish reunification, the leader of Sinn Féin has warned Boris Johnson, also telling the prime minister that no one believed he was impartial on Northern Ireland.

“In the longer term, we have advised him that constitutional change is in the air. He can’t say that he hasn’t been told,” Mary Lou McDonald said after meeting Johnson at Stormont on Wednesday morning.

Any Brexit, but particularly no deal, “represents in anybody’s language a dramatic change of circumstances on this island, and … it would be unthinkable in those circumstances that people would not to be given the opportunity to decide on our future together”, McDonald said.

A generation ago, the success of such a move would have been nearly unthinkable. It’s becoming a lot more thinkable now, not just because of Brexit but also because of demographic changes in Northern Ireland and a sense of dislocation over its present political stalemate.

It’s not helping matters that Johnson is demanding that Irish PM Leo Varadkar drop the backstop and back reopening negotiations that already took place in large part on Ireland’s behalf. Johnson’s allies in the UK have taken to accusing Varadkar and his government of being “bought by Brussels” for insisting on solid guarantees of a soft border after Brexit. Varadkar in return shot back today that Ireland was not about to be “bullied” by the UK into submission:

New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for Ireland to scrap the border “backstop” clause in the deal negotiated under his predecessor Theresa May.

“Ireland isn’t going to be bullied on this issue and as a government and as a country, I think we are going to stick by our position,” Varadkar said in an interview with the Irish Daily Mirror newspaper.

Varadkar said Ireland had “total support” from other EU countries on the backstop, designed as an insurance policy to prevent border controls between EU-member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland but which Johnson says will keep Britain tied to EU customs rules.

Johnson essentially told Varadkar, trust us:

Johnson also told Varadkar he wants the controversial backstop plan to protect the Northern Irish border scrapped.

“He [Johnson] said that in all scenarios, the government will be steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border,” the statement from Downing Street says, adding: “The prime minister made clear that the government will approach any negotiations which take place with determination and energy and in a spirit of friendship, and that his clear preference is to leave the EU with a deal, but it must be one that abolishes the backstop.”

Ahem. Don’t expect the Irish to exhibit a sudden swell of trust in the Brits when it comes to borders and unilateral actions regarding sovereignty. Besides, as Varadkar told Johnson, Brexit is the UK’s idea, not theirs. It’s up to the UK to meet all of its international obligations while pursuing it:

Brexiters have had three years to come up with a plan to avoid import/export controls over the border without having an actual border and checkpoints, and so far they haven’t come up with a workable plan. Why would Ireland simply trust that Johnson will magically work it out in the next few weeks? Especially without a concrete legal commitment to the consequences of failure?

Johnson’s demand may well end up backfiring where it counts. The backstop issue isn’t just important for the Republic of Ireland; it’s also important in Northern Ireland, where the current open border allows for cultural connections and most importantly provides no catalyst for violence. A hard Brexit will require border checks on goods and services exchanged between two customs jurisdictions, and that means a return of a policed border that will become a magnet for protests and worse. If anything, it may well accelerate momentum toward a reunification plebescite, and it might accelerate support for it as well.

Johnson didn’t even get a good reception in Wales, where its first minister warned that the UK might not be so U if Johnson persists:

The next day in Wales, Johnson met a similarly dubious Welsh first minister. Mark Drakeford, a member of the opposition Labour party, warned in an interview with the Guardian that a no-deal Brexit would endanger Wales’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors and “a whole way of life that has existed for centuries.” He stressed that Johnson’s characteristic “bluff and bluster” was testing the unity of the United Kingdom itself.

“I think the union that is the United Kingdom is more at risk today than at any time in my political lifetime,” he said, pointing to how both Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union.

Johnson has painted himself into a corner on a very large bet. He and his fellow Brexiters torpedoed the Theresa May-negotiated Withdrawal Agreement after more than two years of negotiations on the premise that the EU would blink within weeks of a hard Brexit. And who knows? They still might; there’s no doubt that it would do damage to the other 27 nations within the EU. However, it’s going to do a lot more damage to the UK, especially in the short run, plus the EU cannot afford to set a discount for disunification based on bullying and brinksmanship from a disaffected government.

Johnson may well regret setting those discounts at home too now that the incentives are all set for a hard Brexit on Halloween. It makes the incentives clearer and clearer for to disunification among  the UK’s constituent nations, especially Scotland and Northern Ireland. The sun may be about to set on the last vestiges of the British Empire.

The post Ex-PM: BoJo may end up the first Prime Minister of England appeared first on Hot Air.

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Henry Hill: What Johnson’s reshuffle means for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson has kicked off his premiership with one of the most brutal reshuffles in modern political history. But amidst all the bloodshed, what does it mean for the ‘Territorial Offices’: Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland?

Of the three Secretaries of State for the devolved nations, Alun Cairns is the only one to continue to serve in the new administration. On the face of it this looks like quite a feat, given that he campaigned to Remain in 2016 – but as we point out elsewhere this morning, one’s stance on Brexit is less important at the minute than one’s stance on Johnson.

Cairns staying in post means that he can continue to counter the efforts of Mark Drakeford, the small-n nationalist First Minister of Wales, to use Brexit to try and wring more constitutional concessions out of London. In particular there is a fight brewing over Johnson’s plans to replace EU grants with a Westminster-operated ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, which devocrats fear will increase the role of the British Government in devolved nations.

During the leadership election, Cairns called on whoever won to set up a dedicated Downing Street team focused on protecting the Union. Let’s hope his new boss heeds that advice.

At the Northern Irish Office, meanwhile, Johnson’s decision is surprising and, if we’re honest, disappointing. Whilst he has cleared the extraordinarily low bar set by Jeremy Hunt, who proposed to keep the disastrous Karen Bradley in post, Julian Smith is not the man I would have chosen to send to this crucial ministry at this particular hour.

Whilst there is an argument to be made that Smith will have important first-hand experience dealing with the Democratic Unionists due to his service as Chief Whip, there is little evidence that his relationship with them is particularly good. As Sam McBride points out, this is the third pro-Remain Ulster Secretary in a row, and Smith has clashed with the DUP over the backstop. He is scarcely the man to take the fight to those spinning for Dublin in the British, Irish, and European press.

This is especially disappointing because earlier reports suggested that the position was hotly contested, with the Sun reporting that “one of the most hotly fought spats is over who will get the Cabinet job of Northern Ireland Secretary.” Gavin Williamson, who negotiated the original Conservative/DUP pact in 2017, was said to be contending with Conor Burns, who would be the first-ever Northern Irish-born Roman Catholic to serve in the role.

Instead, the position seems once again to have been used as somewhere to place a minister you need to put in the Cabinet – and a role for the former Chief Whip must probably always be found – but for whatever reason don’t want to give something with a higher profile. We must hope that, should Johnson win an autumn election, he takes the opportunity to appoint someone else.

Finally, Scotland. The decision to dismiss David Mundell is an interesting one, because the former Scottish Secretary was a close ally of Ruth Davidson and the decision has reportedly strained relations (yet further…) between the new Prime Minister and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Of course, there is definitely a case for a fresh face at the Scottish Office. Notwithstanding any criticism of Mundell’s tenure, and he does have his critics, it is a simple fact that he has served in the post for nine years – and for seven of them he was the Party’s only Scottish MP. A happy consequence of the 2017 breakthrough is that Johnson now has a much broader pool to draw on when it comes to staffing the Scottish Office.

There is also the fact that Mundell was one of those Secretaries of State who defied the whip on Brexit issues under Theresa May. If Johnson is looking to assert his authority, cracking down on such conduct was almost inevitable.

Although he has a lower profile than some other members of the 2017 intake, Jack is a well-respected and long-serving figure in the Scottish Conservatives. He also holds his borders seat – once the only Tory seat in Scotland from 2001 to 2005 – with a relatively healthy majority of over 5,600 votes. Perhaps most importantly, he voted Leave in 2016.

With Stephen Daisley reporting that certain anonymous “allies of Ruth Davidson” are once again talking up the prospect of splitting off the Scottish Tories – a scheme the woman herself has always rejected in no uncertain terms – Jack’s appointment once again highlights the tensions between their Westminster caucus and the Conservative leadership in Edinburgh. Given that this Government owes its existence to the Scottish Conservatives’ revival, Johnson and his allies must treat them with respect and take their concerns seriously.

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

Hunt and Johnson declare backstop ‘dead’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bebb to stand down over Brexit

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

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

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

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

Bradley criticised over rushing Northern Irish legislation

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

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

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

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

News in Brief:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunt urges Johnson to rule out more powers for Holyrood…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and Lidington and Mundell warn of danger to Union

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

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

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

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

News in Brief:

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

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

Leadership contenders woo DUP…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May calls for review of devolution as part of legacy pitch

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

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

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

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

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

News in Brief:

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

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Gareth Lyon: Time to academise local authorities

Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

It is time for a new kind of devolution. One based not on setting up new tiers of Government to employ yet more politicians and bureaucrats. But on the principles which Douglas Carswell has advocated – dispersing power and making it much more accountable and actually stripping away bureaucracy in the process.

When Brexit finally is resolved, there will still be an overwhelming demand throughout the country to “take back control” of more of the decisions affecting their lives. Certainly, the advance of technology and the way in which most of the service sector has become increasingly personalised and hyper-responsive as a result means that the status quo is no longer defendable.

For a long time, there has been an aversion in our party to devolving too much power to local government. The cautionary tales are still vivid of Liverpool, London, and other hard-left local councils in the 1980s, which were more concerned about solidarity with the Soviet Union and pointless gesture politics than actually improving the lives of their residents.

The problem is that the solution – centralising responsibility for more and more areas to central Government – has led to a negative spiral. Fewer talented, effective, and creative people end up putting themselves forward to be local councillors, knowing that their influence is that much lower. We also see the same diminution in the quality of many of the people working in local government. But this, in turn, leads to even less trust in local government and even more centralisation of power, and so on.

Attempts to devolve power to nations within the UK have clearly done little to improve the quality of government. In Scotland, the ruling party has an appalling record on public services, and focusses entirely on calling for yet another referendum (the irony of wanting more power but not having shown any interest in using the powers they have appears lost on them). The Cardiff Bay administration is seen as an expensive joke in most of Wales, and, of course, Northern Ireland has struggled even to keep an administration together.

I sincerely hope that the new batch of regional Mayors, like Andy Street, are more effective than most regional government. They do face a major challenge in as much as there is so little shared understanding in terms of politics, priorities and identity in areas as vast as a region.

Many county councils see unitary status as a solution to these problems. I agree to an extent, unitary government is a good thing but most counties (and my own in Hampshire in particular) are still too large and diverse to really feel local and responsive to most people who live there.

Instead, a good starting point for this process is asking: what works well? Where are people most likely to know their local authority and their local political representatives?

Both in the UK and outside, the answer seems to be in units of about 100,000 people – so a medium sized town, a few small towns together, or a rather larger rural area.

There are certainly many district or borough councils of around this size which are performing extremely well. Rushmoor Borough Council is a good example of this – topping performance measures in many of the services it provides, gradually reducing the burden of council tax, but by transformation and imaginative investment – not through “cuts” – and finding more ways to engage local residents.

While some services may have capital costs or risks which might seem too great for councils of this size, there really is no reason why councils should not be able to work across county or even regional borders to form consortia to supply these services. Again, this is fairly standard in many other European or US forms of local government.

Going back to the fear of a new wave of Ken Livingstones or Derek Hattons being visited again on the world – there is a simple and safe way of rolling this approach out, and guarding against future excesses.

In the early days of Michael Gove’s Academies Programme, high performing and well-led schools were allowed to become the first converter academies, taking on unprecedented levels of responsibility in terms of education and budget.

The evidence of the success of this policy, both on themselves and on the wider education system, is now so overwhelming as to be almost inarguable.

A similar approach could be adopted with local authorities. The Ministry of Housing Comminities and Local Government and its manifold agencies hold plenty of data on which borough and councils are well-led and high performing.

Like academies – let’s set them free with full responsibility for all decisions and services in their areas. Some will thrive on their own. Others will band together in chains of various degrees of formality and integration. All will innovate, strip out layers of bureaucracy, and localise accountability, power, and control. Back to where they belong. The people.

It is time for a revolution in local government to fulfil the rhetoric of the last few years, and to improve all tiers of government in this country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…as MPs criticise him for his stance on Ulster veterans

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

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

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

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

Northern Irish cabinet post ‘hotly contested’

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson appoints Thomson as his campaign manager in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

Hands and Morgan say Ulster border is soluble problem

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

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

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

News in Brief:

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

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