Sturgeon warns SNP to brace for early election if Budget falls

Nationalist officials have been told to prepare for an early Holyrood election if the Scottish Government fails to pass its Budget today, according to the Scotsman.

The SNP apparently enter today’s crucial vote without having yet secured a majority in the Chamber, meaning they risk defeat on their spending plans for the year ahead. Alex Salmond threatened a snap election when his minority administration lost its 2009 budget, although his successor is being more conciliatory today.

Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary, has been wooing the hard-left Scottish Greens, whose demands reportedly include a further hike to income tax north of the border. Such a move would be grist to the mill of the Tories, who are already attacking the so-called ‘tax gap’ created by the Nationalists’ divergence from Westminster policies.

However, Nicola Sturgeon’s motives may not be entirely related to this: there are also suggestions that she needs, or at least wants, a fresh mandate from the electorate to demand another referendum on Scottish independence. (The divisions arising from the previous one are helping to box her party in on the budget question: the separatist Greens are currently the only viable deal partner for the SNP, who can no longer woo unionist MSPs as they did before 2011.)

Following the fallout from Salmond’s arrest, which we covered last week, the First Minister has been forced to insist that his fall will not overshadow the broader movement for breaking up the UK. Her party came under fresh criticism this week after an SNP politician was chosen to chair an inquiry into how the Scottish Government botched its handling of complaints against the former First Minister. There have even been concerns that saturation coverage of the case may impede a fair trial.

On that front, this week a Nationalist MSP warned his party not to try to bounce the electorate into a second referendum.

Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesman, warned his colleagues against simply re-running the same ‘Yes’ campaign that was defeated in 2014, warning that the party needed to comprehensively review its case for independence (this week export figures highlighted once again the paramount importance of UK trade to Scotland) and consider the timing of any new referendum very carefully.

DUP throw weight behind ‘Malthouse Compromise’

The Government has been accused of trying to block moves to introduce abortion reform to Ulster (via amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill) in order to keep its Democratic Unionist allies on-side.

This comes as the Northern Irish party makes a fresh effort to push the Government to adopt its own, very aggressive approach to political negotiations in an effort to exploit what it sees as a new ‘logical flaw’ in the EU’s backstop position – namely a very obvious split between Brussels and Dublin over what will happen to the border in the event of a no-deal exit.

In related news, security experts have reportedly rubbished Leo Varadkar’s warnings that troops might need to be deployed in the event that Britain leaves the EU without the backstop in place, and Dominic Raab has attacked the Taoiseach for allegedly leaking falsehoods from confidential meetings between the then-Brexit Secretary and the Irish Government.

The DUP have also thrown their weight behind the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ this week, and their votes secured the Brady Amendment.

Cardiff Conservative councillor in row over homeless’ tents

A Tory councillor was suspended – and then reinstated – from the Conservative group on Cardiff City Council this week after making controversial comments about homeless people’s tents.

Kathryn Kelloway attracted huge ire after she tweeted to urge Huw Thomas, the council leader, to ‘tear down’ tents belonging to homeless people in the city centre. She then attacked her critics as “virtue signallers” who were unrepresentative of public opinion on the subject.

However, she was reinstated after a meeting which confirmed that removing the tents remains Conservative policy – and that the current Labour administration in city hall had expressed similar concerns, albeit in different language, that distributing tents was actually cutting the number of people the council was getting off the streets.

Kelloway herself defended her tweets, arguing that there was more than enough hostel accommodation in Cardiff to cater to the entire homeless population and thus there was “no reason for anyone to sleep rough here”.

Divisions deepen inside SDLP over merger plans

The News Letter reports that proposals for Northern Ireland’s smaller, more moderate nationalist party to merge with one from the republic are a source of increasing tensions.

Senior figures, including ex-leader Mark Durkan, have refused to publicly endorse plans for a partnership with Fianna Fail, whilst one former MLA warned that it would make unionists wary of working with the party in Stormont.

Meanwhile the Northern Irish Office is hiring a strategist to try to break the logjam and get the devolved government back on its feet, according to the Belfast Telegraph. This comes after Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, had to bring forward a direct-rule budget for the Province for the third consecutive year.

In other SDLP news, the party helped to deliver a vote on Londonderry council condemning the recent car-bombing. The motion passed by only a single vote after Sinn Fein and independent republican councillors tabled a much weaker one which only ‘opposed’ – but did not ‘condemn’ – the action. Some of those arrested in the wake of the attack are members of a new, unregistered republican party.