Prime Minister plans more and longer visits north of the border

“Scots are set to see a lot more of Boris Johnson in 2020 as the Prime Minister seeks to strengthen the Union and up the UK Government’s involvement in Scotland”, according to the Herald.

Apparently Boris Johnson is planning on holding more Cabinet meetings north of the border, as well as making more visits and overnight stays, as part of his new and self-appointed role as Minister for the Union. According to one source that spoke to the paper, strengthening the United Kingdom will be one of the Government’s main domestic missions after January 31.

The regular visits serve two purposes. First, it is apparently hoped that Scots will warm to the Prime Minister if they see more of him, rather than merely the version of him that filters down through a broadly hostile political and media class.

Second, they aim to make Scotland appear a normal part of the prime-ministerial beat, rather than gifting the SNP the optics of such jaunts looking like official visits from a foreign potentate or remote “governor general”.

This will apparently fit into a broader effort to deliver a much more joined-up “constitutional strategy” for the Union than has previously been the case, combating a ‘silo mentality’ which has seen individual Whitehall departments operating in isolation. It will apparently also involve the British Government backing (and branding) more things such as infrastructure projects so that the tangible benefits of the Union are more apparent on the ground.

Hopefully this close material engagement will be matched by equally vigorous intellectual engagement with the state of the Union. As I wrote for The Critic this week, Johnson needs to wrest the thought-leadership of unionism away from the die-hard devolutionaries lest he end up defaulting to their non-solutions when the crunch comes, as David Cameron did.

One such figure is Gordon Brown, who popped up this week to insist that the key to keeping Scotland in the UK is yet more constitutional concessions to nationalist premises and the establishment of an elected senate.

Spotlight on Stormont’s lack of opposition

The Northern Ireland Assembly is back, alas. The various local parties might have almost immediately accused Julian Smith of essentially tricking them into returning (the demands for even more money were almost immediate) but too late, they’re committed for now.

With the initial will-they-won’t-theys disposed of, we now know that all five of the Province’s main parties – the pro-UK Demoratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists, the nationalist Sinn Fein and SDLP, and non-aligned Alliance – have taken up ministerial posts in the new Executive.

Yet this means that there will only be a grand total of five MLAs outside the governing coalition: two Greens, one apiece for the Traditional Unionist Voice and People Before Profit (both of which backed Leave, incidentally) and Claire Sugden, an Independent Unionist.

Owen Polley has written in the News Letter about how much easier it will be for ministers to circle the wagons now that the UUP and SDLP are inside the tent, even as Sinn Fein and the DUP are already facing charges of returning to the two-party ‘carve up’ that prevailed prior to the Assembly’s collapse. Meanwhile The Journal offers a different perspective, quoting academics who defend Stormont’s lack of formal oppisition.

It looks as if the best that can be hoped for, for now, is that increased Treasury vigilance over how public money is spent in Ulster – especially as Arlene Foster braces for the official findings on the “cash-for-ash” scandal – can offset the lack of domestic scrutiny.

But with the Northern Irish Office obviously committed to not taking responsibility for the Province, it is not obvious that the Government will have the leverage necessary to drive change through risk-averse, pork-barrelling local leaders.

In other news, the European Union has threatened to impose sanctions if Boris Johnson doesn’t enforce the internal border he has signed up to between Northern Ireland and the mainland, and Stormont’s finance minister is apparently not pursuing a cut in corporation tax.

Scottish Conservatives offers SNP a budget deal

Ever since losing their majority in the 2016 Holyrood elections, the Scottish Nationalists have passed their budgets with the assistance of their separatist allies, the Greens.

This has had the effect of dragging their economic policy somewhat leftwards, and so this year the Scottish Conservatives have drawn up an alternative. Murdo Fraser, the Tories’ shadow finance secretary, is talking up a return to something like the working arrangement that existed between the SNP and the Conservatives during the former’s first period of minority government after taking office in 2007.

In exchange for sparing Scotland various “madcap” Green proposals, the Tories would instead press to keep Scottish taxes harmonised with those in the rest of the UK, as well as a review of business rates. You can read Fraser’s case here.

However it may well be that the Greens end up rowing in behind the SNP regardless – they have previously been criticised for putting separatism before their own environmental agenda when push comes to shove.

In other news, Michelle Ballantyne has confirmed that she is “fighting to win” in the Tory leadership race, despite having initially entered it to prevent a coronation.

This week in the SNP

It’s been another fairly torrid week for the Nationalists. First, Nicola Sturgeon has bowed to MSPs’ demands for a full review into the Scottish education system.

Then an SNP MSP is under fire for refusing to represent constituents who oppose independence, whilst a former Nationalist minister has publicly argued that the First Minister could claim victory even in an unauthorised ‘wildcat’ referendum, arguing that the “political reality” would be independence even if the poll had been boycotted by unionists.

And there’s been a touch of sub-Stalinist history-editing over at the party’s official website, whose ‘History’ page no longer makes any reference whatsoever to Alex Salmond, the man who took them into government in Edinburgh, secured the 2014 referendum, and led the ‘Yes’ campaign. As good a sign as any of how the Nationalist leadership think his upcoming trial will go.