Two weeks ago, I raised the question of what impact the change in leadership will have on the Government’s strategy on the Union, such as it is.
As we look ahead to the second stage of the contest, we now know two things: who the final two contenders are, and that there will be official hustings in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
This last, in addition to being a welcome sign of our party’s commitment to standing across the United Kingdom, this last in particular is going to put the Northern Ireland Protocol right in the spotlight.
As I wrote earlier this month for the News Letter, the passage of the NI Protocol Bill makes it much harder for leadership candidates to back down on the sea border than it might otherwise have been. And indeed, each contender has committed to seeing it through.
However, the passage of the Bill is not the end of the story. It is primarily an enabling piece of legislation, one which empowers ministers to act rather than directly implementing change. It therefore matters whether, and how, the next prime minister will wield these new powers to address current trade frictions between Northern Ireland and the mainland.
Is Rishi Sunak, who along with Michael Gove reportedly tried to oppose the Bill in Cabinet, prepared to take a pro-active approach when and if the legislation is passed? A Belfast hustings is the ideal opportunity for Liz Truss – not to mention local members – to press him on that point.
Conversely, it is the hustings in Wales and Scotland which might pose more difficulties for the Foreign Secretary. Although she describes herself as “a child of the Union”, she is not popular with the local party (and as the apparent continuity candidate, this is unsurprising).
It is also not yet clear what her strategic approach to building up a stronger United Kingdom will be; Sunak has at least committed to building on the good work of the UK Internal Market Act to build a direct relationship between the British government and Scottish voters – described by some as “bypassing Holyrood”.
Whilst this is welcome, both candidates need to go much further in re-establishing Parliament’s vital oversight role when it comes to devolved performance. An obvious first step is mandating the collection of uniform national statistics, thwarting years of effort by the devocrats to make comparative analysis of their records impossible. Reversing the decision to devolve control over the British Transport Police – which the SNP intend to abolish in Scotland – is another.
To date, the leadership campaign has focused primarily on issues such as tax cuts, with big strategic questions such as the Union (and housing!) getting a back seat. It is essential that this second stage sees both contenders showing that they have seriously engaged with these questions.