Smith strikes Stormont deal… but questions raised over trade, veterans, and cash

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister praised the “huge progress” signified by the return, after an absence of almost three years, of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

All five of the main Northern Irish parties have agreed to restore the Assembly and join the Executive – leaving just three MLAs to serve as the opposition. But less than a week on, cracks are already starting to appear in the facade of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ arrangement.

First, as I wrote earlier this week, the deal has troubling implications for other parts of the Government’s strategy. The commitment to press ahead with legacy investigations has already sounded alarm bells amongst “senior Tory MPs”, including James Gray and Iain Duncan Smith, about the implications for Boris Johnson’s commitment to protecting ex-servicemen who served in the Province from ‘vexatious’ trials. Johnny Mercer, the Veterans Minister, has acknowledged that there will be “a lot of questions”, and the Prime Minister has this morning signalled that he will protect British troops, but it is difficult to see how that circle can be squared.

Likewise it isn’t at all obvious that the Government’s commitment to ensuring frictionless access to the mainland market for Northern Irish businesses can be reconciled with Johnson’s stated determination to go for a low-alignment Brexit.

But he is also facing a backlash from the Northern Irish parties themselves – inevitably, over money. The Government’s pledges to the Province, including Barnett consequentials, add up to £2 billion – much less than the £5 billion some are suggesting is the real cost of addressing Ulster’s challenges and less than the parties claim they were promised.

Of course, having already gone back into the Assembly there isn’t all that much said parties are likely able to do about it – and in the aftermath of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal it is perfectly just for the Treasury to take a close interest in what is spent on Stormont.

Carlaw and Ballantyne compete for ‘blue collar’ programme…

The Scottish Conservative leadership race is underway, and both Jackson Carlaw and Michelle Ballantye are setting out their stalls for members.

I wrote last week about Carlaw’s bid to establish his credentials as the herald of a new, ‘blue-collar’ conservatism. This has clearl struck a chord, as Ballantyne has this week penned an op-ed for the Scotsman in which she too promises such a ‘revolution’.

Meanwhile Carlaw, who has served as interim leader since Ruth Davidson stepped down and is the front-runner, has started putting meat on the bones of his pitch. In addition to stressing his experience, the Daily Record reports that his programme has shifted towards a heavier emphasis on devolved policy areas such as health, schools, universities, and broadband.

This is a welcome move. Whilst the Tories have revived their fortunes north of the border by rallying around the constitutional question, a more detailed programme not only demonstrates a seriousness about Government but would also leave the Party much better equipped to attack the Scottish Government’s underwhelming record at the next Holyrood elections.

…as Johnson and Jack hold firm against the Nationalists

Meanwhile in London the Government is holding to its tough line on a second referendum, with Johnson telling the Nationalists to “change the record” when asked about it in the Commons. Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, went even further, defining the Government’s understanding of “once in a generation” as that there should not be another referendum whilst Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister – or even during her lifetime!

In return the SNP have accused ministers of abandoning the Smith Commission agreement, drawn up in the aftermath of the 2014 vote to make good on the constitutional retreat promised by David Cameron in his panicked ‘Vow’.