There is some unfortunate, although entirely unintentional symbolism, in the fact that this week’s hustings in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been staged after it appears a majority of Conservative Party members have already voted.
But even if the discussions are perhaps therefore not going to shift too many votes – although plenty of activists in Belfast were uncommitted on the day – the events were nonetheless a valuable window into what both candidates will do about one of the (several) urgent challenges facing the Government.
On Northern Ireland, the most obvious question is what to do about the Protocol. Both candidates have committed to doing something about it, and to seeing through the Bill currently proceeding through Parliament which will empower ministers to take unilateral action to ease the flow of trade from the mainland to the Province.
However, that still leaves the question of whether or not ministers will actually take action, and if so what action. Passing the Bill, on its own, achieves little.
This is a bigger potential headache for Rishi Sunak, who reportedly pushed back against the Bill in Cabinet. Yet he wasn’t pressed on details. Instead, he reiterated that his emphasis will be on negotiations with the EU, presumably with the new legislation as a last resort. But will that be effective, if Brussels not-unreasonably suspects that the former chancellor wouldn’t actually make use of its provisions?
Neither candidate offered a detailed plan for getting the devolved institutions back up and running, although Liz Truss’ comment that it would probably need to wait until the Protocol was sorted out suggests she is not inclined to re-write the rules governing Stormont to remove the Democratic Unionist Party’s ability to bring it down.
Finally, there were warm words about Northern Irish Conservatives; it is a real achievement for the local party to have secured an in-person hustings in Belfast, which was not the plan at the start of the contest. It will be interesting to see whether either Truss or Sunak follows through on promises of more campaigning support.
However neither candidate seemed to have a clear idea of what the Tories are actually for in the Ulster political landscape. When they were originally launched, it was as an integrationist alternative to the pro-devolution Ulster Unionists. That remains a perfectly respectable position but since it conflicts with the Belfast Agreement, it is no longer the party line. The problem is, nothing has really replaced it.
In Scotland, the hustings and preceding announcements were the latest sign of how unionist thinking has started to shift, at least inside the Conservative Party. Time was such an event would have seen the hopefuls trotting out the usual forlorn promises of more money and more powers in the hope that the nationalists could be bought off.
Instead, both Sunak and Truss are proposing to toughen up scrutiny of the Scottish Government, both by empowering the Scottish Parliament but also by beefing up the role of UK-wide agencies. A common theme – and a point I have highlighted before – is mandating the collection of comparable statistics on public sector performance, to prevent the devocrats hiding their records behind gerrymandered record-keeping.
Again, the broader question is what either candidate will do in terms of building a proper, coherent Union strategy, which has been signally absent under Boris Johnson. The broad powers to build a bigger role for the British state contained in the UK Internal Market Act remain largely unused; the Union Unit was dissolved and its power absorbed into DLUHC’s unwieldy empire.
This needs to change, and soon. The fastest way to get things in hand would be to bring Oliver Lewis back into the Downing Street operation. Let’s hope the winner makes that call.