Is there an ‘appease the SNP tendency’ inside the Government?

Yesterday, I wrote about the deal Michael Gove has struck to try to ameliorate the problems caused by Boris Johnson’s capitulation to Brussels over an Irish Sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Conservative MPs are also wary about parts of the agreement, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that the role of the European Court of Justice is a source of particular concern. Some are even threatening to try and re-insert the ‘international law-breaking’ clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill when ministers try to take them out.

On the face of it, the removal of those clauses ought to make it easier for the Government to pass the rest of the Bill, with its controversial but important provisions regarding mutual recognition of regulation in the British internal market and allowing Westminster to step in to replace EU regional funding powers.

But Paul Waugh, of the Huffington Post, instead suggests that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might be preparing to jettison those provisions too, following the backlash from the devolved administrations and a heavy defeat in the House of Lords.

Coming as it does on top of the unease about his Ulster bargain, these won’t assuage unionists concerned about Gove’s approach. Whilst Waugh says abandoning the provisions would be good for the Union – a position wholly rooted in discredited devolutionary orthodoxy – such a retreat would simply be a re-enactment of the very failures by Theresa May that made the UKIM Bill necessary in the first place.

Fortunately, those I have spoken too so far suggest that such a move is not on the cards and that the Prime Minister recognises the importance of re-connecting Westminster to the day-to-day lives of everyone in the United Kingdom.

However, apparently Waugh’s report does reflect conversations that were taking place at one point, there is unease in some quarters about an “appease-the-SNP” mentality on the part of some of Gove’s advisers – embodied by the leaked Hanbury memo and kites flown for such outré proposals as putting Nicola Sturgeon in the Cabinet, as well as the impression that the ‘CDL’ is trying to develop arguments for a referendum the Government is publicly committed to refusing.

As I wrote elsewhere recently, Boris Johnson should stamp out any talk of conceding a referendum. As the First Minister and her Party’s woes continue to mount (of which more below), the prospect of an imminent re-run of 2014 is the greatest gift he could give them.

Unfortunately, the old retreat-and-pray mentality still dominates outside the Government. Sir Keir Starmer has unveiled Labour’s ‘new offer’ to Scots ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections and it consists of – you guessed it – a promise of ‘more powers’. Nor is that the only Labour intervention. Gordon Brown has joined forces with several Labour mayors to demand the Prime Minister takes urgent action to save the Union. Can you guess what they want? Got it in one: ‘more powers’.

Labour’s stubborn determination to keep having their one idea until the clocks strike thirteen and it finally works makes it all the more important that the Government do what the Opposition won’t: pass the UKIM Bill, and defend British governance through our shared Parliament.

Twist in the Sturgeon tale as First Minister’s husband contradicts her evidence to MSPs

This week, MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s botch inquiry into sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond – which ended up costing taxpayers’ over half a million pounds – took evidence from Peter Murrell. He is a very important man in Nationalist circles, combining as he does the roles of the SNP’s Chief Executive and the First Minister’s husband.

It did not go well. In fact, Murrell is already facing demands that he be recalled before the committee. Why? Because his evidence seems to directly contradict that offered to MSPs by Sturgeon herself.

At the centre of the current row is the question of what Sturgeon knew and when, and in particular to meetings she had with Salmond in 2018, which were not minuted.

The First Minister claims that the meeting took place in her capacity as leader of the SNP, in which case no official record was required. But that strongly suggests that Murrell ought to have known what the meeting was about. He says he didn’t, because “the issue raised at the time was a Scottish Government matter”.

Opposition MSPs have leapt on the discrepancy. Murdo Fraser, quoted in the Press & Journal, put it starkly: “Peter Murrell’s words indicate that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament, gave false evidence to the committee, and broke the ministerial code.” They also pressed the Chief Executive on leaked messages which suggest he was trying to put pressure on the authorities to investigate Salmond.

Sturgeon has also been dragged into a ‘secrecy row’, according to the Daily Record, over meetings with her most senior civil servant about the anti-harassment policy which was used in the Salmond investigation.

And on the ‘other problems’ front: the elderly are still dying in Scottish care homes; more public sector bodies are clamouring for the First Minister’s £500 bung to NHS staff; and one of Scotland’s top historians has accused the SNP of placing “arrant propaganda” in schools.