Unionists unite against backstop as Varadkar says no to new talks

The leaders of all three of Northern Ireland’s principle unionist parties – the Democratic Unionists, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice – have maintained their lock-step opposition to the backstop this week, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

Although there was no joint press conference to mirror that held by Remainers, Arlene Foster, Robin Swann, and Jim Allister made it clear that none of their parties was going to follow Lady Sylvia Hermon – the pro-deal independent unionist MP for North Down – and fracture the united front.

This is electorally significant, as it means that in the event of a snap election the three are much more likely to be able to come to some sort of vote-maximising pact. The prospects of a similar arrangement on the Remain side are slim, because the various pro-EU parties would need Sinn Fein to take their seats in order to include them and have little hope of unseating them otherwise.

Robin Swann, the UUP leader, launched a stinging attack on ministers for trying to “downplay” unionist concerns when “he legal advice that was sitting on their desks from the Attorney General tells us we were right to reject this deal”. His party campaigned for Remain in 2016, so its rowing in behind the DUP is especially significant.

Meanwhile in Dublin, the Irish Taoiseach ruled out the prospect of the European Union re-opening the negotiations if Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated in the House of Commons. Speaking in the Dail, Leo Varadkar specifically criticised the idea that talks could be conducted with a legislature, as opposed to a government:

“The suggestion that somehow if it is defeated, we would somehow find ourselves negotiating with a parliament really is quite unworkable. To see a parliamentary delegation entering the tunnel to reopen the talks is just not something that is feasible.”

He also ruled out publishing the Irish Government’s own legal advice on the backstop, although it seems unlikely to contradict the Attorney General’s.

All this will do nothing to assuage unionist fears, articulated this week by Dr Graham Gudgin of the University of Cambridge, that elements in Ireland view the Withdrawal Agreement as ‘a “stepping stone” towards a united Ireland’.

This united unionist front once again puts the spotlight on the 13 Scottish Conservative and Unionist MPs – especially in light of Jackson Carlaw’s tough talk about a “pro-Union ticket” for the party in the 2021 Holyrood elections. David Mundell has still not explained why he hasn’t resigned, as he threatened, over this deal’s differential treatment for Northern Ireland.

Welsh Labour select their next leader this afternoon

The three candidates vying to replace Carwyn Jones will find out which of them is Wales’ next First Minister this afternoon, Wales Online reports.

Jones will step down next Tuesday and hand over to whichever of Mark Drakeford, Eluned Morgan, and Vaughan Gething emerges triumphant today. Amongst the inspiring pitches on offer was Drakeford’s plan to ban smoking (outdoors) in every town and city centre in Wales.

The current First Minister has been beset by scandal since the suicide of Carl Sargeant, a former minister whom Jones sacked. An inquiry into his handling of the matter is still ongoing: just last week the presiding coroner rejected a bid by Jones’ lawyer to consider evidence on the late AM’s ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Whoever wins will have a few years to get their feet under the table before facing their first electoral challenge, currently scheduled for 2021. At present the Welsh Government holds a narrow majority in the Assembly thanks to the support of Kirsty Williams, its last remaining Liberal Democrat, and Lord Elis-Thomas, who resigned from Plaid Cymru to support the executive and now holds a cabinet brief as an independent AM.

Scottish Conservatives attack SNP over tax plans

The Scottish Government has been warned against widening the tax gap between Scotland and England in its upcoming budget, the Daily Telegraph reports.

The CBI counselled that it would make Scottish firms less competitive by making it harder for them to attract the best talent from elsewhere in the UK, and thus risked “economic damage”. Murdo Fraser, the Tories’ Shadow Finance Secretary, echoed these concerns. The Conservatives fear any gap will drive away “wealth and investment”.

However, the IPPR think-tank has warned that the SNP would have to plug a £1 billion hole in their budget if they emulated the tax cuts unveiled by Philip Hammond in the Budget. Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary, has also signalled his personal opposition to the cuts.