I didn’t really clock it at the time, amidst the rush of ConservativeHome’s busiest-ever events schedule and half-heartedly fending off the annual bout of confluenza, but the question of the Union really didn’t seem to loom over this conference in the way it has in previous years.
That isn’t because nothing needs doing on that front – the Windsor Framework continues to quietly unravel the consensus on which Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were built, most obviously – but there seems little doubt that the resignation and subsequent arrest of Nicola Sturgeon has produced some sense in the Party that the pressure is off, at least for the moment.
Indeed, the Scottish Conservatives were one of the few groups in Manchester who seemed genuinely chipper. Several I spoke too said that they were confident of picking up several seats at the next general election, despite a pretty dire forecast for the Conservatives nationally. The consensus was that they would hold all six of the seats that they’re currently defending (or the new versions thereof) and pick up around four more in constituencies where they are the primary challenger to a Nationalist incumbent.
That’d be a rare ray of light in what currently promises to be a very gloomy night for the party – and could lay the foundations for further success, if the SNP continues to tack leftwards in a bid to fight off the existential danger of Labour recapturing its old heartlands in the West of Scotland.
In the short term, such a result would also hopefully mean that the Scottish Conservatives remained a prominent voice in the party in the wake of an election defeat; the loss of every single Welsh and Scottish MP in 1997 did nothing to speed the Tory recovery in either country.
Beyond that, there was also a faint trace of the old Union Connectivity Review in Rishi Sunak’s speech: the bundle of transport projects he announced in lieu of the now-departed High Speed 2 link to Manchester included road upgrades in both Scotland and Wales.
The crucial question, however, is how the Government intends to deliver those (if indeed it does). Whilst it can sign off the money under the UK Internal Market Act, it doesn’t have executive authority over transport, a devolved responsibility. Despite the UCR being published in 2021, the Union Connectivity Bill which was expected to follow it, and create the legislative tools for delivering the many projects set out in that worthy document, never materialised.
And with that, I am off back to my sickbed. Normal service will resume next week.