May resists calls to introduce formal direct rule in Northern Ireland…

The appointment of a new Northern Irish Secretary does not appear to have signalled any significant change in the Government’s Ulster policy, if today’s Times is any indication.

It reports the Prime Minister’s “hostility” to a call by David Simpson, the Democratic Unionist MP for Upper Bann, for British ministers to be given formal responsibility for making the “urgent decisions” needed to keep Northern Ireland running.

James Brokenshire came under sustained criticism from local commentators like Sam McBride for allowing the province to be governed for almost (and now over) a year by the civil service, running on auto-pilot without any democratic political oversight. However, it seems likely that the Government will at the very least need to once again take on responsibility for passing the Northern Irish budget, which needs to be tabled by the beginning of February.

Karen Bradley, Brokenshire’s successor and another of May’s former Home Office colleagues, has called for yet another round of talks but it is currently difficult to see where any breakthrough would come from. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are profiting electorally from the deadlock, and the latter clearly sees little to fear in direct rule.

Without a mandate to pursue a tougher line she will suffer the same fate as her predecessor. But the Prime Minister may have hinted that such a course is an option:

“We do realise, however, we have a responsibility for stability and good governance in Northern Ireland and obviously our priority is on ensuring we can work with parties to re-establish the devolved government, but we recognise a need to ensure Northern Ireland can continue to operate and public services continue to be provided.”

…and attacks SNP’s record on growth as Scots back tax hike

The Prime Minister has argued that Nicola Sturgeon should rethink her plans to raise Scottish taxes, after data showed economic growth north of the border consistently lagging behind the UK as a whole.

Scottish economic growth in 2017 was just 0.2 per cent, versus 0.4 per cent for the whole kingdom. In 2016 it was just 0.6 per cent, barely a third of the UK total of 1.7 per cent.

However, according to YouGov more than half of Scots support the SNP’s proposals to raise taxes on those earning more than £33,000 a year, with only one third in opposition.

The Scottish Conservatives – likely with their eye on that third – are firmly opposed to the plans. They argue that Scotland is especially exposed to the downsides of higher taxes because of the ease with which people can seek business or employment in other parts of the country.

Devolving income tax powers to Holyrood has risks – Ed Balls feared it would eventually make it impossible to set a UK budget – but it does mean that parties can now compete on tax and spending in Scottish elections. With Labour, the SNP, and the Greens all fighting for the more-spending vote, that might help the Tories fortify their new base.

Jones fires ‘warning shot’ at Withdrawal Bill

Having been largely off the constitutional radar after being engulfed in the Carl Sargeant scandal, Carwyn Jones has rowed in behind the Scottish Conservatives to menace the Withdrawal Bill.

The First Minister has said that he will not recommend that the Welsh Assembly vote to bestow ‘legislative consent’ upon it as it represents a “fundamental assault on devolution”, according to Wales Online.

(We have covered the subject at length, but this charge is straightforwardly wrong. Here are counter-cases by me (and again), noted Scottish blogger Kevin Hague, and one of the Clause’s drafters for These Islands.)

‘Legislative consent motions’ are courtesies built into the devolution process, whereby devolved legislatures vote to approve of measures taken by the national legislature which may be viewed as straying into their prerogatives. They don’t actually have the power to block Parliament.

Jones, alongside other nationalists and many high-profile (and pro-Remain!) Scottish Tories, appears to believe that powers which are currently wielded by Brussels cannot be legitimately wielded by London. The Government, shorn of its majority and some of the drivers of its staunchly unionist policy, appears ready to concede the point in the House of Lords.

Boost for Tories as DUP may back boundary overhaul

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Government may have better luck getting some form of boundary review through the House of Commons, if an apparent leak by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland is to be believed.

Under the proposals, which were temporarily placed online during a ‘test exercise’, previous and hugely controversial changes outlined in 2016 have been abandoned. Belfast retains four seats and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, one of very few nationalist/unionist marginals, remains largely unchanged and thus competitive.

Crucially, it appears that the Democratic Unionists will not lose an MP under the new arrangements – in fact it makes them much more competitive in North Down, seat of independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon. This makes it much more likely that they would support the Government if ministers were to try to push the review through.

In other Ulster electoral news, it looks as if the DUP and Ulster Unionists are shaping up to support a joint candidate in the upcoming by-election in the ultra-safe Sinn Fein seat of West Tyrone.

This was precipitated when Barry McElduff, the then MP, posted a video which appeared to poke fun of the notorious Kingsmill Massacre. Apparently the Ulster Unionists want to “run a “non-partisan candidate” to highlight victims’ issues”, according to the Belfast Telegraph.