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Hunt pulls Foreign Office support for Sturgeon to ‘protect the Union’…

The Foreign Secretary took an opportunity to burnish his unionist credentials this week when he withdrew Foreign Office support from Nicola Sturgeon’s diplomatic excursions to Brussels, the Scotsman reports.

In what the paper describes as “a major change of protocol”, Jeremy Hunt has restricted the First Minister and other devolved ministers’ ability to avail themselves of Britain’s diplomatic network and assets to set up meetings with foreign leaders.

This “will now be restricted to trips touching on “areas for which [Scottish ministers] have a devolved responsibility” and where they “avoid supporting activities intended to campaign for policies contrary to [the UK] Government’s position””, according to the paper.

Hunt has been strongly criticised for this by some politicians and commentators in both Scotland and Wales (he recently denied an official car to Mark Drakeford for similar reasons), and been accused of showing ‘disrespect for devolution’. Some have taken up the usual refrain that denying devocrats anything they want is a sure-fire way to break up Britain.

But Hunt is right to take a stand. It is absurd that the British State should actively support devolved politicians trespassing on its reserved prerogatives, especially when they’re doing so to pursue a diplomatic policy which conflicts with its own or are outright trying to win support for seceding altogether.

In fact, he might consider going further. Stephen Daisley has written scathingly about the SNP’s penchant for overseas junkets, and offered the following suggestion which might be right up the Foreign Secretary’s street:

“First, they could amend the Scotland Act to require the Scottish Government to submit for approval to the secretary of state for Scotland any proposed spending which could reasonably be construed to involve reserved matters or be otherwise ambiguous. Next, they could require that all ministerial visits outside of Scotland are signed off by the secretary of state as falling within the remit of Scottish ministers.”

Something to mull over as he hits the campaign trail in Scotland.

…as MPs criticise him for his stance on Ulster veterans

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Hunt has come under fire from a number of Tory MPs for saying that members of the security forces who served during the Troubles should be treated “the same way” as the republican terrorists they were fighting.

He argued that the peace process secured by the Belfast Agreement required the equivalent treatment of both sides, no matter how ‘difficult’ that may be.

Such a stance will do little to deflect the charge that he is continuity Theresa May. Both the Prime Minister and Karen Bradley, her hapless Northern Irish Secretary, have been strongly criticised for failing to protect ex-servicemen and Royal Ulster Constabulary officers from historical investigations and legal action.

This topic has been increasingly heated on the Conservative side since the revelation that Tony Blair’s administration had offered a de facto amnesty to hundreds of IRA ‘on-the-runs’ by issuing so-called ‘comfort letters’, one of which collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

Northern Irish cabinet post ‘hotly contested’

Conor Burns could become the first-ever Ulster-born person to be appointed Northern Irish Secretary, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

He is also a Brexiteer, a staunch unionist, and a practising Roman Catholic, which would make for a fascinating combination if he were given the opportunity to take on the role.

According to the Sun, there is fierce competition for the post, which is reportedly coveted by Gavin Williamson – the man responsible for negotiating the Government’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists.

Either candidate could give the department a much-needed shake-up. There is deep resentment in Ulster’s unionist circles at the Northern Irish Office’s high-handed and studiously neutral stance, which they feel does not adequately counterbalance the de facto support nationalists receive from Dublin.

Elsewhere Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, has called for whoever wins the leadership race to establish a dedicated Downing Street team aimed at protecting the Union.

Johnson appoints Thomson as his campaign manager in Scotland

Following the collapse of ‘Operation Arse’ – the Scottish Tories’ abortive campaign to block his path to Downing Street – Boris Johnson has finally started to build up some support amongst their parliamentary group.

Andrew Bowie, the Prime Minister’s PPS and one of the fastest-rising stars of the 2017 Scottish intake, has now endorsed him. So too has Douglas Ross, another tipped for high office, and Colin Clark, the ‘Salmond-slayer’, who has rowed in behind the front-runner after initially backing James Cleverly.

But the first to come out for him was Ross Thomson, the arch-Brexiteer MP for Aberdeen South, and he has now been appointed Johnson’s campaign manager north of the border.

He certainly has a mountain to climb. The Scottish Tories’ reservations about his candidate are apparently rooted in some private polling showing that a Johnson premiership would have a horrible impact on the party’s performance. Whilst Davidson appears to have reconciled herself to the need to make it work – which was always the logic of staying in the UK-wide party, the basis of her leadership – Johnson himself will have to work very hard to improve his standing in Scotland.

Clark, Thomson, and Ross have written in the Daily Telegraph that their man will ‘swat’ the Nationalists. That remains to be seen.

Hands and Morgan say Ulster border is soluble problem

In other news an Alternative Arrangements Commission, run by Tory MPs Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan, has concluded that a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic can be avoided using existing technology. In a report set to be published on Monday they claim that “futuristic high-tech solutions are not needed”.

This comes amidst reports that Ireland is coming under pressure from Brussels to set out its plans to maintain the border in the event of a no-deal exit. Suffice to say, the fact that Dublin is reportedly prepared to erect a border rather than compromise its position on the EU puts paid to any suggestion that London is obliged by the Belfast Agreement to do otherwise itself.

If Hands’ and Morgan’s findings are accurate they will be a fillip to Johnson, who is in the Ulster press this week saying that there are “abundant technical fixes” to the border question.

News in Brief:

  • Scottish Tories urge boycott of SNP’s ‘Citizens Assembly’ – The Herald
  • Davies selected to re-fight Brecon & Radnorshire in recall by-election – The Times
  • Foster warns both candidates that UK must leave on October 31 – Daily Express
  • Sturgeon wants no minimum vote threshold for an independence referendum – The Herald
  • Devolved ministers ‘don’t know what they’re doing’ on the economy – Wales Online

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