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Spotlight on the devolution agenda

By George Thomas
21 February 2023
Public Affairs

By George Thomas

Belfast and Edinburgh lead the agenda this week with post Brexit trade and Scottish independence under the microscope.

In yet another political test for Rishi Sunak, he faces Cabinet splits over his plans for a deal to address the issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Despite positive ongoing EU level talks, it looks like an announcement on a possible deal on cross border trade is on pause due to challenges played out in public from senior colleagues and the DUP.

Most notably among this group is Sunak’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, and Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. These interventions, coupled with reports that some ministers are considering resigning over the latest deal if it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, look to have derailed the planned announcement. DUP chief whip Sammy Wilson has said that he does not expect a deal to be reached this week amid suggestions that the DUP and Conservative Brexiter MPs had not been sufficiently involved in the process of developing and negotiating a new deal.

However, it is important to note that the details of the deal have not been widely communicated and it remains yet to be seen if Tory MP’s will choose the UK-EU accord on Northern Ireland as the hill they want to end their Cabinet careers on.

It appears that we have on our hands a week of fierce negotiations, with the all too familiar Brexit disputes, infighting and staunch position from the DUP likely to continue to play out.

Despite the implications for Northern Ireland, the current debate continues to illuminate internal Conservative divisions and Sunak’s perceived weakness around party discipline, both of which do not bode well ahead of the 2024 general election.

The political landscape north of the border was well and truly shaken last week with the surprise announcement from Nicola Sturgeon that she will be standing down as First Minister.

So far, the leadership contest has seen more dropouts than emerging early winners. The list of high-profile potential candidates who have ruled themselves out early doors includes former Westminster leader Angus Robertson; the SNP’s current Westminster leader Stephen Flynn; Deputy First Minister John Swinney; and Deputy Leader Keith Brown.

From the younger set of contenders, Kate Forbes seems to have inadvertently torpedoed her own prospects by standing by her opposition to gay marriage. This has not gone down well in Scotland and has seen party figures and political commentators distance themselves from her campaign. Officially, she is still in the running but her odds of success have been significantly diminished and it may only be a matter of time before she herself drops out of the race.

It could possibly become a two horse race between the former community safety minister, Ash Regan, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Humza Yousaf. Nominations for standing as leader close this Friday and the winner, and new Frist Minister of Scotland, will be announced on 27 March. 

So there you have it, any Westminster politicos looking for a bit of respite from the hustle and bustle of SW1 would be ill-advised to delve into what is going on in Belfast and Edinburgh.