MPs prepare for battle on Ulster veterans as Lewis won’t commit to amnesty…

The spotlight is back on the Government’s approach to veterans of the Troubles in Northern Ireland after Brandon Lewis, the new Secretary of State, refused to say whether there would be an amnesty.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, he was pressed on the subject during a recent visit to Londonderry. Whilst reiterating the Prime Minister’s commitment to cracking down on “vexatious” claims, Lewis said that the decision to take individuals to court was the business of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

The issue is back in the news after one former soldier, Eddie ‘Spud’ Murphy, apparently took his own life “after he was questioned by the PSNI about his actions while on duty in Northern Ireland.”

Meanwhile dozens of Tory MPs have set up a new campaign group to press the Government to introduce legislation to protect ex-servicemen from prosecution for actions undertaken whilst serving in Ulster. Its leadership includes Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, and Mark Francois.

They formed the campaign after the deal struck by Julian Smith, Lewis’ predecessor, to get Stormont back on its feet revived the provisions from the 2014 Stormont House Agreement on reviewing every death in the Troubles from 1969 onwards. This undercut the Government’s policy on veterans and more, as we noted at the time.

…as the Government ties itself in knots over the Irish Protocol

Veterans aren’t the only area in which the Government’s policy on Ulster is deeply confused. Today’s papers continue to carry the story that ministers are (intermittently) talking up the prospect of the UK reneging on the controversial Irish Protocol – the policy which introduces a customs border between Northern Ireland and the mainland.

Experts are already warning that such a move would put trade deals with the EU and the US ‘at risk’, although there is growing speculation that Boris Johnson’s strategy is not really geared towards securing a deal with Brussels at least.

But the line on this is not consistent. Just today, for example, Michael Gove appears to have promised the DUP that there won’t be a border down the Irish Sea a mere ten minutes after pledging that the Government would uphold the Protocol, which mandates one.

The Prime Minister ‘got Brexit done’ by apparently abandoning explicit promises to the Unionists about his opposition to any internal partition of the UK. Will he now try to pull the same trick twice – but this time on Brussels?

Carlaw talks tough on immigration

It’s a sad but probably inevitable feature of devolution that politicians face strong temptations to seek political capital by squaring off against the centre. So this week Jackson Carlaw, the newly-elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives, embarked on a bid to lobby the Government over its plans to introduce a new, points-based immigration system.

He was reportedly responding to ‘fury’ in Tory circles north of the border over the introduction of a plan which might not adequately cater to Scotland’s particular immigration needs.

The new leader also welcomed Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals for a separate Scottish visa – quickl rejected by the Government – and made a point of telling a TV crew that he would decide policy in Scotland “irrespective of the UK party line”. This latter is a curious statement, as the national party doesn’t have a line on devolved policy and Carlaw most certainly won’t be setting reserved policy.

However Alister Jack has since come out to bat for the scheme, which as we’ve noted has the potential to be much more flexible than its draconian mood music suggests, and has been publicly supported by Adam Tomkins, a senior Tory MSP.

SNP showdown over Davidson’s seat reflects broader divisions

For years now, one of the defining features and biggest advantages of the SNP has been their phalanx-like discipline. No infighting or factionalism amongst the Nationalists – instead the whole machine marched in lock-step behind first Alex Salmond and then Sturgeon as they fought to break up the United Kingdom.

Such cohesion is unusual, and requires a few factors to maintain: a very strong party leadership, deep commitment to a common cause, and a sense of momentum towards it.

Obviously the Nationalists are as committed to independence as ever, but the other two pillars are starting to crumble. The lack of progress since Brexit in 2016 has opened up a split between ‘gradualists’, who insist on playing the long game, and ‘fundamentalists’ who think the cause ought to be fairing better and think the solution lies in more aggressive and unorthodox tactics.

Meanwhile the First Minister is weakened by the looming shadow of Salmond’s trial. She has few winning outcomes: if he goes down on most of the charges, it will raise questions of what she knew and when; if he walks free then the biggest of the SNP’s ‘big beasts’ will be back on the scene and out for blood after what he feels was a betrayal by his Party.

This internal struggle now has a proxy in the form of the selection contest for Edinburgh Central, the Holyrood constituency being vacated by Ruth Davidson at the next Scottish election. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Commons leader, is seeking the nomination on a platform of loyalty to Sturgeon but Joanna Cherry, an ally of Salmond who currently sits at Westminster, is running against him.