Prime Minister rejects First Minister’s demand for single market guarantee

The battle of wills between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon continued this week, Downing Street rejecting the First Minister’s demands for Scotland to receive a separate immigration policy andaccess to the single market.

May has shown a steeliness on Westminster’s constitutional mandate on too often missing from unionist politics – what the Sunday Post called “fighting talk” - a Number Ten spokeswoman is quoted as saying: “There’s a very clear delineation between issues that are reserved and devolved.”

As I wrote earlier this week, Brexit has put the SNP in a bind: Sturgeon acted as received wisdom recommended by reviving separation after the vote in June, but is now trapped between energised activists and an unwilling electorate.

Nationalists are already floating ways by which the threat of ‘Indyref 2′ could be averted, and the current consensus amongst observers is that they are looking for ways to secure yet “more powers!” and back out with a further erosion of Britain. David Cameron would likely have buckled.

May seems much less likely to do so, and if so her courage is not without foundation: both the Herald’s political editor and a leading ‘Yes’ campaigner said this week that the separatist cause, and party, might have peaked.

Northern Irish Tories’ disquiet at Party’s closeness to the DUP

Earlier this week, the Irish News broke the story that the ‘NI Conservatives’, as our provincial branch is sadly called, were mulling a formal complaint to the Party Chairman about the increasingly cosy relationship between the national Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party.

The focus of their concern was a hastily-reversed decision by James Brokenshire, the Northern Irish Secretary and so-called protégé of the Prime Minister, to address a DUP fundraising dinner. As Stephen Bush put it in the New Statesman, Brokenshire has been at the forefront of the Tory charm offensive:

“Brokenshire has already made a good start, impressing Stormont’s politicians and helping with the wooing of the DUP at Westminster. That task has gone so well that, on most issues, the government starts with a working majority of 32 rather than its Conservative-only one of 16.”

As I explained this week, despite the risks there are clear incentives and opportunities for both parties in striking a deal, provided it were done on the right terms.

May is a unionist by instinct and needs the DUP’s eight Parliamentary votes. Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, can’t take the usual easy out of devolutionary politics and rail against London because her party campaigned for Brexit: they own it.

That need to make our departure from the EU work has injected a new, pan-UK dimension to her historically parochial party, and could yet drive it closer to the Tories in ways I didn’t think of earlier this week.

For example if Foster were to embrace the case that EU subsidies have masked the fundamental weakness of the Ulster economy, it could justify shifting the DUP’s economic position towards that of the Conservatives.

Former Plaid leader quits party to sit as independent

Wales Online reports that Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, a former leader of the Welsh Nationalists and one-time Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, has resigned from the party.

The site describes it as a “hammer blow” to Plaid, coming as it does a week before their annual conference. His decision brings the party back down to 11 AMs – the same number Andrew RT Davies’ Conservatives, whom they overtook in May.

It’s also a boon to Labour. Lord Elis-Thomas cited Leanne Wood’s failure to work “constructively” with Carwyn Jones’ administration as one of his reasons for walking out (although he had wider differences with Wood). He’s unlikely to join the government as the last Liberal Democrat AM did, but will likely still provide welcome support.

Had he got his way and Plaid joined Labour in coalition, however, it would have left the Tories and UKIP as the only major opposition options available to Welsh voters. He may not have liked the results.

Blair accused of appeasing IRA with amnesty to secure legacy as peacemaker

Back in 2014, this column ran several items on the unfolding scandal of the so-called ‘Comfort Letters’, documents issued to IRA “on-the-runs” (OTRs) assuring them they didn’t face arrest which collapsed the trial of one of the men believed to be behind the 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

Summoned to appear before Parliament’s Northern Ireland committee, Tony Blair warned the Government not to tamper with the scheme, lest it jeopardise the peace he had secured in the province.

Now the Belfast Telegraph reports that a new book, by barrister Austen Morgan, makes the case that the then-Prime Minister and Jonathan Powell, his Northern Ireland envoy, over-egged the threat of IRA violence to rush a deal through before Gordon Brown succeeded him in 2007.

He also claims that Blair made several legal judgements which prevented judicial reviews which might have proved fatal to the OTR scheme.

P.S. This piece by Nick Cohen in the Spectator about the gagging of Stephen Daisley, an STV journalist, by SNP pressure is well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.

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