Another week, another clash inside the Government over Union strategy and how to handle the devolved administrations. This time, the battlefield is several UK-wide bodies: NHS Digital, the Human Tissue Authority, and the Health Research Authority.
Ministers are pushing for reforms to this body as part of the Health and Care Bill. But as some of its functions will fall under devolved competence, there has been disagreement about how to oversee it.
A coalition of what I suppose we must call “muscular unionists”, including all three of the Territorial Offices (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), have been pushing for responsibility for these bodies to fall to Westminster.
The conciliators, led by Michael Gove in his mantle as ‘Minister for Intergovernmental Relations’ and Mark McInnes, the Prime Minister’s adviser on the Union, reportedly want to cede the devolved authorities a veto over any changes in devolved areas.
Multiple sources tell me that, in response to a refusal of consent from the Scottish Government, the Prime Minister has in the last few days green-lit this concession – although defenders of the move apparently believe that the veto will not be exercised in practice.
But some within the TOs are concerned that the devolved governments are coordinating their responses to this sort of legislation, with a different one playing ‘bad cop’ each time to try and disguise a policy of general obstruction.
This is not the first time this issue has arisen. Last year, I’m told Gove locked horns with BEIS over seeking a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) for the Subsidy Control Bill. An LCM is the mechanism by which a devolved legislature signifies its consent for Westminster legislation that affects a devolved policy area. It is a courtesy, but not a constitutional requirement as Parliament remains sovereign.
In that instance, the ‘muscular unionists’ – this time a combination of the Business Secretary, the Scottish Secretary, the Leader of the House, and the Chief Whip – won the day.
Really it could not have been otherwise: there was no question of the SC Bill receiving an LCM. Like the UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA), it is part of the programme of legislation by which HM Government is taking over economic responsibilities previously discharged by the European Union, in this case by providing “the framework for a new, UK-wide subsidy control regime.”
But Gove is apparently now trying to confine that precedent to Brexit-related legislation, with the broader effort staying in line with his strategy of avoiding head-on confrontation with the devolved authorities – hence the decision to push for an LCM for this aspect of the Health and Care Bill, and make the necessary concessions to get one.
All of this shows that almost a year after the resignation of Oliver Lewis and the subsequent collapse of the Union Unit, Boris Johnson seems no closer to imposing any order and coherence on the Government’s approach to one of the biggest existential challenges it faces. Whilst the tough line against another referendum is holding firm, the time thus bought is not being used to build a stronger, more effective British state.