Scottish Conservatives support SNP bid for EU powers

The Scotsman reports that the Scottish Tories are putting pressure on the Government to amend the Withdrawal Bill so that a huge range of powers currently exercised in Brussels are passed down to the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Adam Tomkins, a newly-elected Conservative MSP and law professor who represented the Party on the post-referendum Smith Commission on devolution, has been on manoeuvres on the issue for weeks and has now published an op-ed advising the Government on how to avoid a so-called ‘power-grab crisis’.

With the 12 new Scottish MPs forming a crucial element of Theresa May’s working majority there is obvious scope, were they to act in concert, for ministers to be put under great pressure on the subject.

But sources involved in drawing up the Government’s position on Section 11, the portion of the Withdrawal Bill covering devolution, insist that the Government can’t afford to capitulate on the issue.

They argue that, contra Tomkins’ claims, the great majority of the powers pooled at the EU level were pooled there precisely because they were necessary for the smooth operation of a single market. They add that it is hard to reconcile the idea that these powers can be breezily devolved to a sub-national level with the Scottish Conservatives’ support for Remain and, latterly, for a soft Brexit which would avoid repatriating these powers at all.

We will shortly be running a more in-depth look at why the Government is standing its ground on Section 11. But ministers have been woefully negligent about making this case themselves. That so staunchly a unionist organ as The Spectator is running with the SNP’s preferred narrative suggests that it hasn’t been offered a convincing alternative.

Brokenshire talks of ‘creative thinking’ as pressure mounts in Ulster

The Northern Irish Secretary took to Brexit Central yesterday to write about the need for ‘creative thinking’ in addressing the challenges posed by Brexit to Northern Ireland.

As ever, there were few specifics about what those solutions might be but he was admirably clear in laying down the British Government’s priorities: maintaining the internal coherence of the United Kingdom and its internal market, which is far more important to the prosperity of Ulster than is the Republic or the European Union.

The undertone of the piece, which calls for “creative and imaginative thinking by the UK and Irish Governments, along with negotiating partners in the EU” (my emphasis), is that it is for Dublin and Brussels to decide how EU arrangements might be adapted to Ireland’s needs.

He also stresses his continued belief in the need for a restored Executive, and here Brokenshire is on weaker ground. His constant setting and re-setting of meaningless deadlines have eroded his authority in the Province and become subject to running jokes in the Belfast and Dublin press.

Far from closing in on a deal, the Democratic Unionists are out outpacing the Northern Irish Office in their calls for imminent direct rule. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, are vociferously opposed to London legislating for Ulster’s budget but have offered no alternative plan to prevent the complete collapse of its public sector at the end of the month.

Even if Brokenshire can stitch Stormont back together, this latest crisis came hot on the heels of the previous one over welfare which lasted almost two years. It may be time to admit that the current devolved system in Northern Ireland needs to be fundamentally reassessed.

Jones under pressure to quit over former minister’s apparent suicide

Carwyn Jones is meeting Labour members of the Welsh Assembly today amidst mounting pressure to resign over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against a colleague.

Carl Sargeant, who until last week was Communities and Children Secretary in the Welsh administration, appears to have taken his own life after being suspended over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Jones stands accused of prejudicing the investigation into Sargeant. Apparently the AM was not provided with details of what he had stood accused of – apparently the First Minister offered more details on TV than anybody had given the man himself.

He also faces questions about when he first learned of the allegations against his minister, and has already faced calls to quit from within Welsh Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn has refused to say whether Jones should go, which is a long way from an endorsement. The First Minister is expected to give a statement presently, but had not done so when this column went to press. If he does fall, the sexual harassment scandal will have indirectly claimed the scalp of one of the most senior elected Labour politicians in the country.

Varadkar wears the poppy

In another sign of the deepening rapprochement between the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and the past, the leader of the Irish Government has worn a poppy commemorating the Irish troops who fought in British regiments during the First World War.

RTE reports that Leo Varadkar, who leads the governing Fine Gael party, was given the ‘Shamrock Poppy’ pin by a senator. They are being produced and sold by the Irish branch of the Royal British Legion, and funding apparently goes towards supporting “Irish veterans and their families”.

Of course, sporting the poppy is just the sort of thing previous generations might have expected of the first Taoiseach (prime minister) to have graduated from Dublin’s Trinity College, long isolated as a holdout of unionism and, latterly, Protestantism.

Salmond bids for control of an anti-independence newspaper

A fresh development in the SNP’s totally not-creepy approach to civic life north of the border: Alex Salmond has teamed up with an ‘activist investor’ to try to gain control of a prominent anti-independence newspaper.

The Guardian reports that the former First Minister, who lost his Gordon seat to the Tories in June, “would not seek to have editorial control of the Scotsman, which opposed Scottish independence, but he would like it to become more “pro-Scotland””, whatever that means.

Given the Nationalists’ record when it comes to suborning independent civil institutions, especially universities, the prospect of ex-SNP politicians taking control of opposing newspapers is not a pleasant one.

As an aside, Salmond would also make the Yorkshire Post, which is also owned by the Johnston Press, more “pro-Yorkshire”. As that paper is already run by someone determined to see some kind of devolved legislature for the county, it would be interesting to see where Salmond thinks it is falling short even by his nationalist metric.