Democratic Unionists signal Westminster support for grammar schools

The high-profile wooing of the Democratic Unionist Party was, to those of us with a keen interest in unionist matters, extremely interesting.

Arlene Foster, the First Minister and leader of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, was applauded in the hall, and the party threw a well-attended champagne reception titled “Making Brexit Work, Making This Parliament Work, Making The Majority Work”.

Now the News Letter reports that Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP education spokesman, has signalled that his party’s eight MPs will support May’s proposals in the House of Commons.

Indeed, he took the opportunity at education question time to seek assurances from Justine Greening, the Secretary of State, that she wouldn’t allow critics to deter her from the policy!

The UK-wide EU referendum campaign, during which the DUP fought for Brexit and even paid for campaign materials on the mainland, seems to have given a new British dimension the party’s thinking – matched by a heightened appreciation of how co-dependent Britain and Ireland truly are.

Might Theresa May and Foster be discussing some kind of organised arrangement between the Tories and the DUP at Westminster? It would certainly help the Prime Minister avoid an early election.

Sturgeon warned that she’s repeating Labour’s mistakes

Kenny MacAskill, a senior figure in the SNP, has warned Nicola Sturgeon that her play-it-safe approach to governing risks making the same mistakes which doomed Labour in Scotland, the Times (£) reports.

MacAskill, who served in Alex Salmond’s cabinet from 2007 to 2014, argues that the SNP are following in Labour’s footsteps by building a dominant electoral machine but governing timidly.

With Nationalist members and supporters apparently not keen to rush headlong into a rematch they look likely to lose, the SNP has little option but to try to actually govern Scotland.

This poses a dilemma: bold, imaginative government risks alienating Scotland’s numerous vested interests, whilst overseeing decline invites rejection by the voters. And any decisions are likely to start fracturing the SNP’s broad but fragile coalition, to the possible advantage of Ruth Davidson’s resurgent Tories.

And that’s before we consider reports of mounting disquiet in the Nationalist ranks at the extraordinarily autocratic way the SNP is run. The party got where it is with rigid focus on a single goal. We have yet to see if it can slow down without stumbling.

Hain attacks Welsh Assembly’s bid to bypass voters on new powers

Peter Hain, a former Welsh Secretary, has launched what Wales Online terms a “devastating attack” on plans to devolve income tax powers to the Welsh Assembly without a referendum.

Speaking in the Lords (he stepped down from the Commons in 2015), the former MP for Neath described the move as “a flagrant breach of promise to the electorate”.

Hain isn’t the only one disquieted: earlier this year five Welsh Tory MPs wrote to George Osborne to urge him to reconsider plans to abandon the referendum requirement.

Although opinion polls find the public split on the decision, with some suggesting it would be “difficult to win“, devolved politicians in Cardiff Bay are predictably united in their enthusiasm for more power – and appear to have found a sympathetic ear amongst Tories who spy a strategic advantage in giving the Assembly tax responsibilities.

SNP under pressure on railways, healthcare, and agriculture

If the earlier item highlighted the strategic difficulty for the Scottish Nationalists of shifting into “normal government” gear, this week provided no shortage of case studies.

Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s Scottish leader, took the fight to the First Minister in Holyrood on the “shocking” state of ScotRail, the country’s passenger rail franchise, and the pro-independence Sunday Herald published an investigation into the Scottish commuter experience under the headline “Hell on Wheels”.

Meanwhile, the Aberdeen Press & Journal reports that the Scottish Government is facing yet more criticism for their mishandling of payments to farmers from the Common Agricultural Policy, whilst according to the Scotsman one of Scotland’s largest health boards has been forced to u-turn on referring patients to private hospitals after racking up massive waiting lists.

To top it off, another chink appeared in the Nationalists’ holier-than-thou story when Corri Wilson, one of their MPs, was found to have hired both her son and her daughter as personal assistants at public expense.

P.S. A colleague and I managed to get front-row seats for Ruth Davidson’s appearance on Matt Forde’s Unspun, a current affairs comic show which apparently aims to “humanise” politicians. It was great fun live, so might be worth a watch! Our episode will air tonight.