Government retreats from ill-judged attach on Scottish court…

Yesterday the Court of Session in Scotland ruled that Boris Johnson’s advice to Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, in a ruling which sent shockwaves through both the Westminster bubble and the legal community.

We covered this on the site yesterday, and I went into a bit more detail over on CapX about what this ruling might mean both for the present Government and for the longer-term relationship between the political and judicial elements of our constitution.

One thing I did warn ministers against was following the lead of an anonymous spokesman who, offering the Government’s first response to the judgment, appeared to call into question the impartiality of Scottish judges.

Needless to say Nicola Sturgeon was all over that at once, and whilst the Government has rightly rowed back from that line it may be too late to avoid handing the SNP another stick with which to beat the Scottish Tories at any upcoming general election.

However, the Government did receive some good news this morning when a Belfast court ruled that Brexit – even a no-deal Brexit – does not break the Belfast Agreement. We have previously said as much.

…as Johnson squares up to the Nationalists

Perhaps this will be offset by other efforts by the Prime Minister to ‘move the battlefield to Scotland’. In a trip to Aberdeen last week he moved to shore up the Conservatives’ unionist bona fides by insisting that he wouldn’t grant the Scottish Government the legal authority to hold an independence referendum – even if the SNP won a ‘landslide’ in a snap election.

He said: “People were told in 2014 that the referendum was a once in a generation event. I don’t see why we should go back on it.” The Prime Minister also unveiled an extra £200 million in central funding for Scottish farmers.

Whilst it might not be popular with the devo-max brigade, there is a very strong case for imposing proper limits on the frequency of independence plebiscites. Not only would it prevent the SNP from completely denormalising the UK and force them to focus on governing – where their record worsens by the week – but it may also be essential to the proper functioning of the very benefits of Union which the Government needs to sell voters on.

In other SNP news, it appears they may be about to deselect one of their sitting MPs. Dr Lisa Cameron failed to win a vote of Nationalist members to get re-adopted, blaming a ‘local smear campaign’ over her refusal to vote to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

DUP insist they still have clout amidst rumours Johnson might be lining up to cave on the backstop…

At this week’s ‘People’s PMQs’ Johnson once again ruled out a Northern Ireland-only backstop – but that has done little to quiet rumours that he might be about to revive it in order to pass a Brexit deal through the Commons.

Speculation has been fuelled further by apparent moves in Downing Street to clear the way for readmitting the rebels who lost the whip after voting to strip the Government of control of the Brexit negotiations – in order to protect the Prime Minister from the ‘spears’ of the European Research Group.

Despite signs that the Democratic Unionists might be open to all-island arrangements on some issues, namely agrifood, both they and the great bulk of Northern Irish unionists remain implacably opposed to any arrangement which sees their Province split away from the mainland.

Amidst reports of growing Unionist unease – not helped by reports of senior Tories saying Johnson is preparing to throw them under a bus – the DUP have been forced to insist that they still have clout at Westminster. They may now be wishing that they had opted for a deeper and longer-term arrangement with the Conservatives when it was offered to them in 2017, as their semi-detached status and 2019 renewal point are now starting to look more like a liability than a chance to extract more cash from London.

Just to reiterate that opposition to the backstop is not confined to hardliners – and Lord Ashcroft’s polling finds four unionists in five opposed to it – Lord Empey has this week set out the Ulster Unionist Party’s proposed alternatives.

Meanwhile Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and former First Minister, has announced that she will not be seeking a Westminster seat at any upcoming general election. There had been speculation she might do so lest her position as leader become untenable should Stormont remain suspended and the political centre of gravity shift back to London.

In other Ulster news, the Government has announced a shot in the arm to iconic shipbuilder Harland & Wolff with a multi-billion pound contract for new Royal Navy frigates, and Northern Irish Office minister Lord Duncan has raised eyebrows after failing to defend a senior civil servant from ferocious criticism over a controversial payment to an official ‘offended’ by a portrait of the Queen.

…as Varadkar’s relationship with them deteriorates apace

All of this comes amidst collapsing belief amongst unionists in Leo Varadkar’s good faith on the backstop. The Irish leader has also been strongly criticised by Micheál Martin, the leader of the opposition, for failing to adequately prepare Ireland for a no-deal Brexit.

Bertie Ahern, a former taoiseach, also made an important intervention to warn Dublin against trying to impose a settlement without the support of the unionists. He argued that the Belfast Agreement’s promise of equal treatment had to apply to both sides:

“Any solution has to include the unionist people because parity of esteem in the Good Friday agreement is both sides; to do a deal through Europe with Britain that creates a problem for the unionist community and will be rejected by the English nationalists in the Commons – that’s not really an option.”

Apart from the nonsensical reference to ‘English nationalists’ this is sound advice, and echoes concerns we highlighted last year about Dublin’s intensely one-sided interpretation of the Agreement.