Tories claim Drakeford has turned Wales into ‘testbed for socialism’

This morning’s papers report that Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to convene a four-way summit to help ensure that the whole United Kingdom faces the same rules about visiting friends and family at Christmas. But at the minute any hope of reviving the ‘Four Nations’ approach seems rather remote.

Earlier this week the war of words between the Government and the Welsh Government heated up when Brandon Lewis accused Mark Drakeford of turning the Principality into “a test-bed for left-wing socialist authority”. The Northern Irish Secretary launched the attack on the Marr Show whilst being questioned about the Government’s position on free school meals.

If you haven’t been following the story, this is about the First Minister’s decision to not just close non-essential shops as part of a ‘firebreak’ lockdown, but – in the name of preventing unfair competition – ban supermarkets from selling non-essential products too.

Even in a week with free school meals all over the papers, this has sparked fresh are at Cardiff Bay’s approach. Some critics have suggested it is inappropriate for Labour to be introducing a measure under Covid-19 regulations whose stated purpose is nothing to do with public health. Others, as we reported at the weekend, are increasingly angry that the British taxpayer is being asked to stump up for Drakeford’s overzealous policies. Would he be so quick to lock down if he had to pay for it?

Unfortunately, the clarity of this Tory attack has been muddied somewhat by suggestions that the Senedd group may have actually expressed support for the policy before it was implemented.

Salmond calls for Sturgeon probe to be broadened as SNP woes deepen again

They’re perhaps closer to breaking up the Union than ever, yet the SNP’s internal strife continues to deepen. This week Alex Salmond wrote to the man leading the probe into whether or not Nicola Sturgeon broke the Ministerial Code to ask “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Salmond suggests that the remit given to James Hamilton by John Swinney, the First Minister’s deputy, focuses on potentially ‘straw-man’ allegations and may be intended to distract attention from other issues. The former First Minister also appeared to criticise witnesses who are “are relying on their political party to finance their legal representation.”

Meanwhile Judith Mackinnon, a civil servant at the centre of the botched investigation, defended her role in front of MSPs.

Elsewhere this week, the Times reports that the Nationalists’ candidate selection efforts have “descended into chaos” as hundreds of hopefuls fight it out for 32 constituencies. Edinburgh Central is witnessing an especially fraught contest between Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, and Marco Biagi, the former MSP. The Nationalist leadership were accused of trying to stitch up the selection for Robertson when they changed the rules to prevent Joanna Cherry, the prominent pro-Salmond MP, from contesting the nomination. Another SNP branch in Ayrshire has been put in ‘special measures’ after allegations that the sitting MSP “broke SNP rules and ‘bullied’ colleagues”, according to the Ardrossan Herald.

And all that’s just the political side! On the governmental side of the ledger, the Scottish Government is under fresh pressure after an official public health report confirmed that Covid-positive patients had been released from hospitals into Scottish care homes, which have borne a disproportionate brunt of pandemic casualties. One senior journalist branded its conduct ‘grotesque’ after the official response failed to even acknowledge this transfer of patients. Sturgeon has also faced a ‘backlash’ from MSPs over her new system of lockdown tiers.

Humza Yousaf has also been pushed into a u-turn after a furious row over his ‘Orwellian’ Hate Crimes Bill after it emerged that it might criminalise statements made ‘over the dinner table’ in private homes. The Press & Journal reports that the Justice Secretary has said he is ‘open’ to extending the “breadth and depth” of freedom-of-expression clauses in the draft legislation.

Consequences of the Irish Protocol get clearer by the day

Few of the Tories who attack Theresa May over her Government’s apparent willingness to abandon Northern Ireland to the EU seem to have struggled to forgive Boris Johnson for doing the same thing, but the case for at least re-examining the Irish Protocol continues to grow as its practical impact becomes clear.

Writing in the News Letter, Sam McBride has explored how the new rules are already leading to British products becoming unavailable in the Province, with the Food and Drink Federation warning that it may soon not be viable for many businesses in their sector to supply Ulster at all. The end result could be higher prices in shops or, worse, British supermarkets pulling out of the Northern Irish market altogether – further changing the texture of day-to-day life and alienating Northern Ireland from British culture. Internet shopping will also be affected.

Despite efforts by outriders for Brussels and Dublin to insist there are no ‘constitutional’ implications because the top-level sovereign status of the Province is unaffected, McBride rightly points out that this position is becoming “increasingly hard to sustain”:

What does Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK actually mean if many of its laws are not be set in London or Belfast, but in Brussels, and if the impact of that is to discourage trade within the UK and encourage trade with the Republic and the rest of the EU?

Those of us who have always opposed placing a border inside the United Kingdom were pointing out all the way back in 2017 that the volume of trade between Ulster and the mainland vastly exceeds that between Northern Ireland and the Republic and rest of the European Union put together, so anything which impacted that was going to have an outside impact.

By letting Irish nationalists shift the focus to ports and airports being more ‘practical’ (with the implicit threat of a revival of republican terrorism, coded as ‘defending the peace’), successive British governments allowed themselves to be boxed into a solution with much broader consequences for commerce than a land border which would have fallen overwhelmingly on a relatively low volume of overwhelmingly agricultural trade.

This is in no small part because of a persistent failure to develop and articulate a British understanding of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement to counter the maximalist interpretation offered by Dublin, or to reform a Northern Ireland Office which shows little interest in fighting the UK’s corner.

A Government committed to the Union simply has to do better. Perhaps Michael Gove’s new team of pro-Union PR experts could be tasked with making sure that the blame for all this imminent inconvenience to Northern Irish shoppers falls on those who insisted on a sea border.

Opportunity for the Tories as Wales’ last Lib Dem prepares to step down

Since 1999, Kirsty Williams has held the Senedd seat of Brecon and Radnorshire. She has done so whilst its Westminster counterpart fell to the Tories (twice) and the rest of the Liberal Democrat group got wiped out.

Now the MS, who is currently propping Labour up by serving as Education Minister in Drakeford’s government, has announced that she intends to stand down at next year’s election.

Some Tories have mused that she might have her eye on winning the seat back for her party at Westminster in 2024 (or sooner, if the Government gets round to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act). But either way, it opens up an opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives. Absent a very popular incumbent they ought to have a good chance of picking this up – and perhaps of wiping out the Lib Dems as a force in devolved politics.