Carlaw wins Scottish Tory leadership

As generally anticipated, Jackson Carlaw won the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives by a very comfortable margin, taking more than three quarters of the vote versus rival MSP Michelle Ballantyne.

He has since dropped her from the Tories’ shadow front bench in a reshuffle which saw Murdo Fraser, an advocate of “quasi-federalism” whose long-standing ambition has been splitting the Scottish party away from the UK one, moved to the constitutional brief.

Carlaw has also pledged a “comprehensive review” of the Party’s policies, with the goal of positioning the Conservatives as a ‘blue collar’ party which is capable of supplanting the “morally and politically bankrupt” SNP as Scotland’s party of government.

This is an overdue move. The Tories have for a while now been trying to shift the spotlight onto the Nationalists’ woeful record on day-to-day issues, but such a strategy is ideally a one-two punch and the second strike is a plausible and attractive policy offer with which to contrast the Scottish Government’s record.

But although endlessly focusing on the constitution is not sufficient as a Tory strategy, it is easy to see how they might get trapped in that comfort zone. Just this week there has been another spate of stories about the possibility of a so-called ‘wildcat’ referendum, i.e. one conducted without the legal authorisation of Westminster.

Pete Wishart, an MP not typically known as one of the SNP’s wise heads, has warned Nicola Sturgeon not to indulge such talk because it “terrifies” wavering voters who might be tempted into the separatist camp by Brexit. On the other hand John Bercow, in an increasingly desperate effort to stay in the news, has talked up the idea.

Welsh Nationalists fined almost £30,000 by the Electoral Commission

Plaid Cymru have been hit with a £29,000 fine for “finance reporting failures”, according to Wales Online. The levy is reportedly a response to “nine inaccurate reports” regarding donations totalling almost half a million pounds.

According to the Commission: “The investigation found that the party submitted nine inaccurate reports over a two-year period, omitting a total of 36 cash donations worth more than £497,000.” Their Director of Regulation added that: “The total number and value of donations omitted from Plaid Cymru’s quarterly reports is significant and reveals a substantial degree of non-compliance.”

This comes just a week after Neil McAvoy, an independent Assembly Member who previously sat for Plaid, announced his intention to set up a rival Welsh National Party, which will apparently put a ‘sovereigntist’ spin on the theme with a programme which advocates not only independence for Wales but for the individual.

McAvoy was expelled from Plaid in 2018 over an “irrevocable breakdown of trust” arising from a dispute over policy. He has apparently been followed out by several councillors, and has claimed that a “senior staff member” at Plaid has been trying to set up dummy WNP social media accounts.

Labour hopefuls back ‘more powers’ as route to Scottish hearts

In a wearisomely predictable move that illustrates just how little they’re actually thinking about the subject, all the MPs contending for the Labour leadership have backed the devolution of yet more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

All three argued that the Party needed Scotland to have any hope of winning back power, although this did not stop Rebecca Long-Bailey from confirming she would authorise a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum. Sir Keir Starmer is on the record as backing “radical federalism”, whatever that is.

The most potentially intriguing response was from Lisa Nandy, who struck and unabashedly unionist tone and suggested that Labour needed a plan “much more radical power settlement than federalism with power pushed out to local authorities”. That’s an intriguing idea, especially in light of the Scottish Government’s well-established tendency to squeeze genuinely local government and centralise as much power as possible in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile Ian Murray, Labour’s sole Scottish MP and candidate for the deputy leadership, urged his comrades to explore why the Opposition lost their ‘Tartan Wall’, the collapse of which preceded the similar implosion of the ‘Red Wall’ in northern England.

Foster urges Lewis to limit the scope of Troubles probe

Last week, we wrote that Boris Johnson’s decision to dismiss Julian Smith offered him a second chance to show that he was serious about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

It’s too early to start judging Brandon Lewis’ performance, but one mooted reason for the decision to drop Smith was that the Prime Minister intends to adopt a tougher line on the question of so-called legacy inquiries, specifically those into the conduct of British troops and officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

This week Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, publicly urged the new Northern Irish Secretary to grasp this nettle – despite the fact that a pledge to establish the ‘Historic Investigations Unit’ within a hundred days was presented as a key part of the package which persuaded Sinn Fein to re-establish Stormont.

Downing Street sources claimed that the Prime Minister had been “blindsided” by the implications of Smith’s deal for important bits of Government policy (as we warned at the time), but for his part Lewis’ predecessor says Johnson signed off on it.

P.S. This Saturday, I’m speaking at the first-ever These Islands conference in Newcastle. I’ll be on a panel with Lord Salisbury and Carwyn Jones, both of the Constitution Reform Group, to discuss whether their New Act of Union Bill, with its provisions for a ‘federal’ UK, are the way to save the Union. (Spoiler: probably not.)