Davies turns new page in his leadership with devosceptic pivot

Last week, I wrote about the apparent tension in the Welsh Conservatives between the long-term strategy of their Assembly group, which has been geared towards an alliance with Plaid Cymru, and their increasingly devosceptic electorate.

I have written about this dilemma previously, but the Tories declined to confront it during their most recent leadership election and appeared to miss a golden opportunity to woo voters tempted away from Labour by UKIP. I then warned that this could leave their flank open to challenge from a more explicitly unionist party, such as Abolish the Assembly (‘ATA’).

This week, it appeared that this may finally becoming to pass. As ATA activists welcomed members to the Welsh Conservative conference, Paul Davies gave a speech which some commentators are describing as “effectively a relaunch of his leadership”.

Of course, this does not extend to actually opposing the Assembly. ITV report the leader of the Welsh Tory AMs as saying that “It isn’t devolution that has failed Wales – it’s two decades of Labour”, a formulation that basically renders devolution itself un-falsifiable by experience.

But it does strike a more sceptical tone, with an emphasis on freezing the Welsh Government’s budget, opposing a bid to double the size of the Assembly (at the same time as rebranding it a ‘parliament’), and taking what is described as a ‘populist’ tone on the cost of politics. This may well be effective in persuading devosceptic Conservative voters to stick with the Party next May, but it would almost certainly rule out any arrangement with Plaid Cymru and leave the Tories with a longer, less insider-y route to power in Cardiff Bay.

This could potentially be a significant inflection point, marking the moment when ATA started exerting the sort of pull on the Tories in Wales that UKIP did nationally. Yes, at the moment the counter-devolutionaries are a rag-tag group with little to no representation – but so too were UKIP when their activists first started appearing outside Conservative conferences.

But whilst ITV have given the speech a full write-up, the only related story which currently appears on the politics page of Wales Online – which counts at least one prominent nationalist on its reporting staff – is a dig at the Tories for employing family members. If devoscepticism is really Davies’ chosen path, he will have to try and carve a space for it in the Welsh media.

Gove warns elections watchdog against ‘wasting time’ on SNP demands…

The Daily Telegraph reports that Michael Gove has written to the Electoral Commission to warn them against indulging the Scottish Nationalists’ demands that new work be done on an independence referendum.

He apparently claims that the SNP leadership are trying to trigger a ‘re-testing’ of the 2014 question in order to persuade their increasingly fractious activists that a poll is imminent, and tells the quango that doing so would be a waste both of time and public money.

For what it’s worth, unionists should almost certainly insist on a new question in the event of a second referendum. David Cameron ceded the separatists the ‘Yes’ label as part of his policy of conceding lots in order to make the outcome definitive (ho ho). At the least, the next question should reference what is to be gained (“an independent country”) and lost (“leave the United Kingdom”).

In other news, the Prime Minister has apparently appointed Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil & South Perthshire, as a Downing Street adviser on matters relating to the Union.

…as Nationalists continue to run into trouble

The divisions within the SNP over the question of a second referendum are growing increasingly public. Just this week Ian Blackford, the Party’s leader at Westminster, has publicly rebuked colleagues suggesting that the Scottish Government could stage a referendum without legal authorisation from Westminster in the event of a separatist (SNP plus Green) majority in Holyrood after the 2021 elections.

Nor is this their only problem. Aileen Campbell, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, has this week become the second Scottish Government minister to announce her intention to step down from Holyrood. She follows Mike Russel, one of the SNP’s better-known MSPs and their current Brexit Secretary. Some outlets are speculating that up to seven Nationalist MSPs may be set to quit, including Jeane Freeman, the embattled Health Secretary.

Any that hold individual, geographic constituency seats (as opposed to list ones) will trigger selection battles which could offer fresh chances for the Party’s various factions to fight for control of it. I noted a couple of weeks ago how this is already happening in Edinburgh Central, Ruth Davidson’s constituency, which is witnessing a high-profile showdown between Joanna Cherry MP and Angus Robinson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader.

On top of all that, of course, there’s Alex Salmond’s trial. The Guardian have done a useful overview of how it will be reported, and here are some links to a few of the stories so far.

Are ministers using infrastructure to carve for Westminster a bigger role in the Union?

One feature of this week’s Budget worth noting is that Rishi Sunak has apparently ensured that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will most strongly feel the benefits of key ‘levelling up’ policies, especially those relating to broadband and mobile coverage.

As Andy Maciver, a sometime contributor to this site and no committed partisan of the Party, has noted, this move highlights the huge potential there is for unionism to regain ground in Scotland and elsewhere if it starts to use Westminster’s powers and money more intelligently – especially now it is taking back control of those funds which were previously laundered through Brussels before coming back to the British regions with the EU flag on them.

Meanwhile the Government’s thinking on a land link between Scotland and Northern Ireland has reportedly evolved, with Alister Jack saying that the Prime Minister now favours a tunnel between Portpatrick and Larne rather than the previous idea of a ‘Boris Bridge’.

In a recent piece I struck quite a sceptical line on this project, writing that:

“The bridge to Northern Ireland – which will almost certainly never get built – serves as an eye-catching statement of his commitment to a Union he unabashedly shafted to “get Brexit done”.”

But Paul Masterton, another recently-unemployed Scottish Conservative MP, has noted another possible use for the idea (assuming they don’t actually try and build it). Could the Government be using the idea of ‘Carson’s Causeway’ to create political space for less grandiose schemes, and secure public acceptance from potential opponents of Westminster making direct investments in the devolved nations?

Not to be bought off with a figment of a tunnel, the Democratic Unionists have denounced the Budget as a “false dawn” for Northern Ireland and continue to savage the Prime Minister over the Withdrawal Agreement.