Prime Minister promises action on troop prosecutions…
Boris Johnson’s stock in and on Northern Ireland is not high after his u-turn on what he previously claimed was implacable opposition to a border in the Irish Sea.
His deal is already being dubbed the “economic equivalent of the Anglo-Irish Agreement” in some unionist circles, and whilst Conservative MPs have rowed in behind him he still appears to feel the need to offer something to unionist feeling.
Therefore this week the papers splashed with a pledge from the Prime Minister to end the “unfair trials” of soldiers who served in Ulster during the Troubles. According to the Times: “The party will pledge to amend the Human Rights Act to exclude any death in Northern Ireland that took place before the act came into force in October 2000.”
Claims that this will amount to an amnesty have been rejected, with Ben Wallace claiming that it will only apply to soldiers whose cases have already been investigated. This chimes with the argument advanced by Johnny Mercer in the Sun, in which he argues that the Tory policy is aimed at “repeated and vexatious legal claims”.
All very well. But the stock of solemn vows on such subjects from Johnson is understandably low. Would his Government, elbows-deep in the future relationship negotiations and with Northern Ireland in a very sensitive spot, really open up yet another front on anything related to the Belfast Agreement?
…as he’s criticised over Ulster claims…
Whilst we’re on the subject, the Prime Minister has been accused of “deceit or ignorance” over attempts to deny that his new deal does create an economic partition inside the United Kingdom.
Speaking to manufacturers in Northern Ireland, Johnson declared that they could put any forms they were asked to fill out on goods shipping to the mainland “in the bin” – contradicting Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, who had previously said that “some information” would be required.
Kwasi Kwarteng has backed the Prime Minister, claiming that his remarks were “bang on the money”. Michael Gove managed to go even further and distil the Tories’ muddled position on the subject into a single sentence: “It will be the case that there will be some administrative processes but in no way are they checks.”
Given recent developments, even the Northern Irish Conservatives are understandably sceptical. Irwin Armstrong, their former leader and the man who asked Johnson about the checks, apparently said that “I want to believe him, but is he just being bombastic and being Boris?” The answer is almost certainly yes.
Nor is that the only criticism. Remainers have seized on his claim that Northern Ireland will get a “great deal” to attack the harder Brexit his terms deliver for mainland Britain.
…and takes a firm stance against a Scottish referendum…
He’s had somewhat greater success in shoring up his credentials on the Scottish question – aided and abetted by Jeremy Corbyn’s kneecapping Labour’s credibility on the subject, of which more below.
This week, Johnson “emphatically ruled out” authorising a second referendum on Scottish independence if he’s returned to Downing Street next month. This marks a hardening of the Conservative stance over recent months as it implies refusal even in the event that the Scottish National Party (and their separatist allies, the Greens) win a Holyrood majority in 2021.
Such a stance is intended to help shore up the Tories’ credentials as the ‘Party of the Union’ and consolidate pro-UK voters in seats such as East Renfrewshire. In a previous column I wrote about how a dissenting minority of election-watchers suspect the Scottish Conservatives could do much better than anticipated through anti-Brexit. (Ian Smart set out the full theory on his blog, and he’s followed it with another interesting read on what might be worrying the SNP.)
Unlike his promises on Northern Ireland, it is easier to imagine the Prime Minister keeping this one – perhaps a sign of how much more effective the Scottish Conservative approach is over the Democratic Unionist one when it comes to influencing the Tory leadership.
…as Corbyn swithers on the Scottish question
If the Scottish Tories’ best hope at the next election is to consolidate the pro-UK vote, they ought to be made to declare the Labour leadership’s conduct on the independence question as campaign donations in kind.
This week saw another slew of bad headlines for Scotland’s once-dominant party, most prominently when Corbyn u-turned on whether or not he would authorise a re-run of the 2014 vote within a matter of hours of appearing to rule it out – leading to claims that his party was in “complete disarray” on the subject.
Yet whilst obviously trying to keep the door open for Nicola Sturgeon, he has nonetheless publicly rejected calls for a “progressive alliance” with the Nationalists, perhaps fearful that the Conservatives might be able to successfully re-run their “Vote Miliband, get Sturgeon” campaign from 2015. Michael Gove is certainly trying.
The SNP are not making it easy for him, either, with senior Nationalists this week making headlines with claims that they will not only drive ‘a hard bargain over independence‘ but even demand a Labour-led government scrap Trident as the price for installing Corbyn in Downing Street. Music to the ears of Tory strategists, no doubt.