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At the weekend, I wrote about how Alister Jack’s successful decision to take on Nicola Sturgeon over her controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill had paid off, and the lessons this ought to hold for the Government about taking on received opinion and pursuing bold policy remedies.
I also pointed out that it fit a pattern, at least on constitutional issues. When the Government pushed through the UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA), to reverse Theresa May’s very dangerous defeat over post-Brexit devolved powers, the SNP were supposed to receive a major boost; likewise when the Supreme Court rejected the First Minister’s bid for the power to hold her own referendum.
Yet in neither case did any sustained strengthening the Nationalists’ position in the polls actually come about.
Likewise, when Brandon Lewis quietly set aside the time limits on the so-called grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Michael Gove, disaster was supposed to follow. It did not, and you will be hard-pressed to find many people these days who either advocate for the full implementation of the Protocol as written or expect it to come about (even amongst those who previously called for it).
Looking further back, the Brexit vote itself was supposed to be enough to give the SNP the momentum they needed to finally smash the United Kingdom, and inject some nitrous oxide into the engine of Welsh separatism too. Again, there is not much evidence of that so far, with the vagaries of the polls having to be balanced against the significant practical barriers posed to independence in either case by our departure from the European Union.
Yet despite this track record of failure to map onto reality, the strength of the received wisdom of devolution inside the Government seems very strong. In his excellent profile of Alister Jack this morning Andrew Gimson describes the scale of the opposition the Scottish Secretary faced in deciding to exercise Section 35 and block the GRR Bill:
“They [Kemi Badenoch and Nikki da Costa] lobbied Jack, who agreed with their analysis, but came under immense pressure from nervous Tories in Scotland, nervous officials in Whitehall including Sue Gray, the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, and nervous Conservative Whips at Westminster, not to defy Holyrood.”
This tallies with my previous experience of divisions within government over the constitution, which in recent years have tended to see the various territorial offices clashing with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State in charge of Union policy – for example, the repeated clashes over whether proceed with Westminster legislation without Legislative Consent Motions (LCMs) from the devolved executives.
It also fits the sad fact that the passage of UKIMA has not been followed, as originally intended, by an energetic programme of new HM Government initiatives in the devolved territories, which Section 50 of the Act makes possible.
People I spoke to reported frustration that Gove and the above-mentioned Gray have interpreted it as only covering whole-kingdom initiatives, rather than specific interventions on local issues by the centre. (This is not stipulated in the Act.)
This may in part be a consequence of the sheer scale of the former’s responsibilities: as the name implies, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is a sprawling empire; levelling up, housing, and the Union are each, or at least each ought to be, major priorities that would benefit from a dedicated secretary of state.
Instead, bold reform is either absent or walked back; in the case of the Union, an unfortunate consequence of Rishi Sunak’s decision to fall back in large part on the Cabinet arrangements of Boris Johnson means that the tension between DLUHC and the territorial offices hasn’t been resolved, and worthwhile initiatives such as the Union Connectivity Review have not been followed by legislation.
Yet the past week has showed, again, that the SNP are not unbeatable, and that taking them on does not automatically play into their hands. There’s a lesson for the Prime Minister there, and he should take it.
Protocol deal: do leaks precede a sinking?
This morning’s papers report that sources in Brussels are worried that the leaks starting to emerge about the Government’s deal to resolve the stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol is endangering a compromise:
“The European Commission urged the bloc’s member states not to leak details of the UK-EU talks, saying they could “endanger the whole process”, according to a summary of a meeting on Wednesday of EU ambassadors.
“The commission briefed the national representatives that negotiations needed “sufficient space, time and discretion because of the high sensitivities on both sides and the current situation within the UK government”, said the summary, in an apparent reference to the pressure on Sunak.”
Certainly, what has been coming out so far has not been going down well with the Democratic Unionists or their allies in the European Research Group, although sources close to the negotiations insist to me that they believe what emerges will meet the former’s seven tests.
Yet as I noted on Sunday, the briefing is for the most part simply confusing. The negotiators seem to be working to a timetable dictated by the April quarter-centenary of the Belfast Agreement and Joe Biden’s plans to visit – yet claim not yet to have the answers on governance and sovereignty that would actually get the Unionists back into Stormont.
If that’s the case, Sunak could be about to learn another lesson in the price of timidity – the hard way, this time.