The ‘Union dimension’ of the current leadership contest

For the next few weeks this column is going to adopt a slightly more focused format, and concentrate on the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and otherwise ‘Union’ dimensions of the current Conservative leadership contest.

And compared to the last one in 2016 – and especially when compared to the one before that, all the way back in the mists of 2005 – those dimensions are much more pronounced, and important, than ever before.

For the first time since John Major was chosen, the Party sports a strong caucus of Scottish MPs. The Government also depends on the Democratic Unionist Party for its day-to-day majority in the House of Commons. This means that both these nations – and the broader question of the Union – will have a much higher profile than before.

Candidates set out proposals for Irish border…

With their Brexit strategy necessarily a centrepiece of every leadership hopeful’s campaign, more than one has set out this week how they hope to resolve the impasse created by the Irish backstop.

Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has outlined plans for a ‘grand gesture’ to the Irish Government, wherein the United Kingdom would foot the full bill for a ‘digitised border’ in Northern Ireland in order to build ‘goodwill’.

However, the Belfast Telegraph pointed out that Dublin would probably not appreciate being called “the tail that wags the dog” during Javid’s appearance on Andrew Marr.

Meanwhile Matt Hancock called for the establishment of an ‘Irish Border Council’, chaired by an independent figure, in order to keep the frontier open whilst allowing the UK to pursue an ‘independent trade policy’, the BBC reports. This would form part of his ‘credible plan’ for delivering Brexit.

However another part is reportedly a time-limit to the backstop, something Brussels has ruled out several times. This might make it tricky for the Health Secretary to criticise other candidates whose proposals involve renegotiation.

…as Stewart attacked for ‘parroting nationalist propaganda’

None of the hopefuls have attracted such ire as Rory Stewart, however. Despite trying to position himself as the unionist candidate – and having some good credentials on that score, such as his ‘Auld Acquaintance Cairn’ – he has sparked a fierce backlash over his position on the Border.

It started when Christopher Montgomery took to Twitter in the wake of one of Stewart’s campaign videos, filmed walking along (and indeed across) the aforementioned frontier, and took apart the candidate’s historical reading of the Border question, especially with regards to the order of (and causal relationship between) the end of the IRA’s terror campaign and the dismantling of British security infrastructure.

This was then expanded upon by Owen Polley, a well-known unionist writer from Northern Ireland, in a blistering attack in The Article. Stewart’s ‘facile’ comments, he said, “endorsed the Irish republican justification for violence in Northern Ireland, in all its brazen dishonesty, without criticism or qualification.”

He went on to attack the candidate’s adoption of Theresa May’s habit of taking up the language of Irish nationalism in order to try to build support for an Irish Sea border which would allow the Government to pass the Withdrawal Agreement as-is (and that is indeed the basis of Stewart’s Brexit strategy).

This would be a good time to remember, therefore, that the DUP also weighed into the leadership contest this week – to impress on all participants the importance of finding an alternative solution.

Unionists of Polley’s persuasion may also be wary of the fact that Stewart has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, a self-styled ‘quasi-federalist’ who previously angled to break the Scottish Tories away from the UK party. Elsewhere the Scotsman reports that he would not rule out, as other candidates have, holding another vote on Scottish independence.

Elsewhere Kirstene Hair, the Tory MP for Angus, has published a piece in the Times setting out what she wants to see from the leadership candidates. In addition to fierce opposition to Nicola Sturgeon, she floats the excellent idea of “a new “Union unit” within No 10, a cross-departmental focus on how policies affect all parts of the Union as well as building on the current investment through economic and cultural projects.”

Scottish Conservatives’ anti-Johnson campaign stalls

Speaking of them, there has been a spot of bother for Ruth Davidson this week over her evident back-pedalling on the previously unthinkable proposition of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.

Back in February, I wrote about reports of a sustained lobbying campaign – dubbed ‘Operation Arse’ – aimed at dissuading Conservative colleagues south of the border from endorsing his candidacy.

There was even excitable talk that Davidson might concede Fraser’s logic and split the party if he won, and Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, says that her failure to do so is somehow a failure of authenticity.

Such criticism is not fair. Like any idea which stands to profit the devocracy, setting up a separate party in Scotland will keep being raised by the usual suspects. But Davidson herself has never once supported it. Indeed she won the leadership opposing it, and indulging such logic – much like the idea of Scottish Conservative MPs acting as a ‘bloc’ – undercuts the case for remaining integrated.

But as the saying goes: “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” By striking a tough posture against Johnson when it looked as if his moment had passed, Davidson was storing up trouble. It evinces the same sort of strategic miscalculation which saw senior Scottish Tories have to perform a screeching u-turn on the Irish backstop last November.

If Johnson does have a serious shot at becoming leader, and you believe in a UK-wide Conservative Party, then acting as a bridge between the man and the Scottish people will be Davidson’s task. Easy outs, such as banning him from the Scottish conference, will not be viable.

However, this should be no excuse for Johnson himself to ignore the sincere and deep-rooted concerns which gave rise to the campaign. Comforting stats (pulled from subsamples, by the looks) will not cut it as unionist credentials.

Not that the fighting has finished. James Kanagasooriam, one of the Scottish Tory inner circle, has published a thoughtful, data-led piece on the Spectator website exploring the downsides of a Johnson premiership. But the battle may be over.

News in Brief:

  • Bradley slammed by NUJ for snubbing the media – BBC
  • Former SNP MP receives 18-month sentence for fraud – Guido Fawkes
  • Ulster police reject Mordaunt’s call for Troubles amnesty – The Guardian