Of all the pressing items that will greet Liz Truss if and when she enters Downing Street next week, the Union risks seeming paradoxically the most important but the least urgent.
The continued existence of the United Kingdom is, of course, an existential question for any leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Yet with inflation, the energy crisis, and the cost of living all competing for the Prime Minister’s attention, it might be tempting to try and put it on the back burner.
After all, the danger in Scotland seems less than it once did; Nicola Sturgeon is engaged in a forlorn-hope attempt to secure the power to hold a unilateral referendum by the Supreme Court, a gambit many Nationalists suspect is designed to fail and ease her path towards stepping back from front-line politics after the next election.
Northern Ireland is more serious. At present, it has no devolved government, and the Democratic Unionists are refusing to re-constitute the Executive until the Government has made sufficient progress in sorting out the Protocol. That means Truss will either have to exercise the new powers contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to their satisfaction, embark on a major reform of Stormont to remove their veto, or introduce direct rule.
Alternatively, she can just let the dysfunction tick over and defer the fateful day with Brussels. This wouldn’t be creditable, but previous British governments have found it easy enough to compartmentalise and de-prioritise Northern Irish crises, even when armed with a far less compelling suite of excuses than the next prime minister.
This would be a mistake. Whilst the Union might not face an immediate crisis, it is still subject to the same long-term pressures which have chipped away at it for the past 50 years: well-organised separatist movements, and equally potent constitutional reform lobbies determined to leverage the threat of those movements to bounce Westminster into meeting their demands for a federal or confederal UK.
By contrast, pro-UK MPs have historically seen breathing space as an opportunity to focus on other things. This includes even that die-hard opponent of devolution, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who lamented in his 2016 book The Question of Scotland how he and the others squandered the referendum victories of 1979 and allowed their opponents to regain the initiative.
It would be too much to expect Truss (or Sunak) to take personal charge of drawing up and delivering a detailed Union policy. But what the new prime minister will need to do is put in place the people and structures to make sure that the Government has one.
Boris Johnson signally failed to do this. Originally, the Downing Street Union Unit was supposed to coordinate policy across government.
However, this fell victim to the internecine warfare that wracked his court. Luke Graham, the former Scottish MP, was ousted in favour of Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave veteran and one of the architects of the UK Internal Market Act. After a brief power struggle Lewis too resigned, and shortly thereafter the Union Unit was wound up entirely.
Responsibility for Union strategy then passed to Michael Gove, joining other strategic priorities such as housing and levelling up in his sprawling empire at DLUHC. Whilst Gove was one of the Government’s most capable ministers, this arrangement had two significant downsides.
First, the question could not possibly get the Secretary of State’s full attention due to the breadth of his responsibilities. Second, Gove’s conception of what the Union strategy should be was at odds with the views of others in government; we reported previously on clashes and turf wars between DLUHC and the Territorial Offices over such issues as legislative consent motions.
It doesn’t matter which side you think had the right of the argument; neither was able to put their vision into practice across government. The result was that even as the SNP stalled, Westminster was spinning its wheels. So what does the incoming Prime Minister need to do?
On Northern Ireland, the most important thing is to make sure that whoever is entrusted to lead the negotiations with the EU is armed with a clear plan. That means knowing which provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill the Government is prepared to exercise, and how, and how much retaliation from Brussels the Cabinet is prepared to stomach.
In terms of what that strategy should look like, the wisest course is probably the ‘salami slice’ approach the Government has previously taken with the so-called ‘grace periods’ on mainland-to-Ulster trade; originally agreed as temporary, they were simply extended more than once and became broadly accepted as indefinite, without backing Brussels into a corner with a big showdown.
Regardless of the tactics chosen, without this clarity Truss risks repeating the pattern of the past couple of years, wherein London has talked up various deadlines for triggering Article 16 before letting each slip past, taking a bit of the Government’s credibility with it.
It will also need to pass muster with both the DUP, whose endorsement is currently essential to getting the Province’s devolved institutions back up and running, and the European Research Group, which having voted through Johnson’s deal, sea border and all, are now trying to make up for it, and who reconvened their ‘star chamber’ earlier in the summer.
On the broader question of the Union, the next Prime Minister needs to make sure that the Government has a pro-active pro-Union strategy that involves all departments. That means entrusting somebody to draw one up and empowering them to enforce it.
The obvious choice, if Truss doesn’t wish to side with Gove and return the issue to him, would be Lewis, whose preferred strategy is each department making much more active use of the powers conferred by UKIMA to increase the footprint of the UK Government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Such a person could also ensure that good ideas which have emerged during the campaign, such as commitments to increase scrutiny of the Scottish Government and enforce the collection of UK-wide data on public service performance, were not neglected as the new government scrambles to put its agenda in place.
By this means, the Government could spend the next two years putting in place a broad range of practical measures to strengthen the institutions which bind Britain together, policies which on their own merits might stand a good chance of getting rolled over by incoming ministers even in the event of a Labour victory in 2024.
If not, and the Government instead defaults merely to saying ‘No’, it risks become a re-tread of the mistakes made under Margaret Thatcher and John Major: making sure the calamity doesn’t occur on their watch, but doing little to nothing to forestall it happening later on.