Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the week’s local council by-election results.
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Cash for Cameron
The SNP argued the Conservative Party’s funding scandal demonstrated why Westminster could not be trusted to run an independence referendum.
Outlining the party’s concerns, Angus MacNeil MP, who initiated the ‘cash for honours’ inquiry, argued:
“The prime minister must fully disclose the details of his meetings with Peter Cruddas on Scotland’s independence referendum.
“We know that David Cameron and Peter Cruddas discussed the referendum, and we know that the Tories were willing to discuss accepting donations from an overseas wealth fund based in Liechtenstein – something which is against the law.
“The revelations about the Tories’ funding demonstrate why Westminster cannot be trusted when it comes to running Scotland’s referendum.
“The disgraced Tory Treasurer and fundraiser was the man who financed the anti-AV campaign, and was already lining up with David Cameron against the Scottish referendum.
“The tightest rules on spending must be set in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament. Otherwise we will find Tories like Peter Cruddas raising money from Liechtenstein to attempt to buy the poll.
“Westminster has been left totally discredited – from cash for honours, to the expenses scandal, and now cash for access – there has been a deep decline in standards that has left voters disenfranchised and disheartened with Westminster politics.
“We should tell David Cameron to keep the Tory Party’s grubby hands off Scotland’s referendum.”
Cash for Salmond
Scottish Labour, however, had its own concerns over the hospitality Alex Salmond had been providing, the Daily Telegraph this week revealing a couple who won £161 million playing the Euro millions lottery subsequently donated £500,000 to the SNP’s independence referendum campaign just days after being hosted by the first minister at his official residence of Bute House.
The paper reported that the meeting was not recorded in the official register of the first minister’s guests and no civil servants were present.
Calling on former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini to launch an inquiry into whether the code of conduct for Scottish Ministers had been broken, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, Paul Martin, declared:
“This would appear to be an abuse of the ministerial code of conduct and has to be investigated by the independent advisers.
“It is not befitting of someone holding the office of first minister to chase after lottery winners and hold tea parties for them at his official residence in a bid to secure donors for his separation campaign.”
The allegations of improper conduct were denied by the first minister’s official spokesman.
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Scottish Tory Conference
As the Scottish Tories, meanwhile, sought to use their conference in Troon to outline a more assertive streak in efforts to take on the SNP over independence, the New Statesman’s James Maxwell observed that the party’s leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, failed to address the points that actually mattered in her speech.
Recognising that she had given a “confident speech”, Maxwell wrote:
Despite what was an undeniably well constructed and delivered address, Davidson failed to confront the two central challenges facing Scottish conservatism. The first is that the Scottish Tories are still run by the UK party, from London.
This has lead to Davidson’s authority being badly undermined on two occasions: once by the prime minister, who announced in January that he was willing to enhance the powers of the Holyrood parliament beyond the provisions offered in the Scotland bill, despite Davidson having described the bill as a “line in the sand” as far as constitutional reform was concerned, and again this week by the UK government in its decision to support minimum pricing for alcohol, which forced her to abruptly abandon her opposition to the SNP’s own minimum pricing proposals.
The second, much more deep-rooted challenge is that posed by the legacy of Tory rule in Scotland. Modern Scottish politics is to a large extent defined by its anti-Thatcherism.
The current generation of nationalist and Scottish Labour leaders came of age during the 1980s – when Scottish unemployment and poverty rates nearly doubled – and share a common antipathy towards the laissez-faire economics championed by the Thatcher government.
The problem for Davidson is that this antipathy is by no means restricted to Scotland’s political class, but reflects the feelings of Scottish voters more widely.
So far, there have been no indications that Davidson understands how to overcome these obstacles – or that she even knows they exist. If in fact she does then, ironically, her best bet might be to adopt the strategy advanced by her defeated leadership rival Murdo Fraser, who argued the party needed to be completely disbanded and a new one – free from the baggage of the past – established in its place.
But there is no chance of that happening: Davidson won the leadership on the basis that she was the continuity candidate (she was endorsed by her predecessor Annabel Goldie and is thought to have had the private backing of the prime minister).
The difficulty, of course, is that continuity for the Scottish Conservatives means slow decline and then, probably, death.
NI NHS A&E SOS
Opposition politicians sought to pile the pressure on DUP health minister Edwin Poots by urging him to resign over the state of Northern Ireland’s Accident and Emergency departments.
“You are the one who should stand up and be counted.
“You are responsible for the absolute destruction of the health service. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why is it this crisis has come on your watch? The minister is culpable. He is responsible. If heads are to roll, it should be his.”
“Let someone else take over the reins if he can’t do it.”
Poots responded by declaring McCarthy had behaved “in true style as that of the village idiot”.
The bitter exchange of words led McCarthy to call for an apology, arguing:
“I was disgusted that the minister used such language during an Assembly debate. The Assembly is meant to be a place for mature and grown up debate, not a place for insulting language to be used.
“I would have thought that a minister in our Executive would have the capability to come up with a valid response to my criticism but by using such language he has in effect lost the argument.
“This incident has been reported to the Speaker and I await his ruling but I would think that Mr Poots will do the honest thing and apologise to me.”
Hain court trouble
Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, meanwhile, was notified he is to be summoned in front of a Belfast court on charges of contempt of court over criticisms levied in his memoirs at Lord Justice Girvan concerning the appointment in 2005 of a Commissioner for Families of Victims.
Pledging to stand up for free speech, Hain responded:
“I am astonished at this turn of events. I worked harder than anyone as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence and delivered the 2007 settlement which helped secure that.
“If free speech and comment in a political memoir is to be suppressed, then people will be entitled to ask what system of justice prevails.”
Iain Dale, managing director of the memoir’s publisher Biteback, explained:
“I am advised that proceedings for contempt for criticising judges have been considered obsolete in England and Wales since the end of the 19th century. Our lawyers are not aware of any such case having been brought in Northern Ireland in living memory.
“As a publisher, I strongly support free speech, not least by our elected politicians, and we will therefore be vigorously defending this case.”
Everyone hates Osborne
There was embarrassment for the UK government as all parties in the assembly roundly condemned the chancellor’s plans for regional pay.
Debating a Plaid Cymru-tabled motion which declared the proposal “unjust for workers, damaging to the Welsh economy and detrimental to business”, Welsh Conservative finance spokesman Paul Davies told the Assembly his party in Wales had “huge concerns surrounding a regional pay system”.
“As a group, we have not seen any evidence at all of the benefits of introducing a regional pay system in the United Kingdom and that is why we are making it absolutely clear that we are against using a regional pay system.”
For the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, Peter Black AM declared:
“It is important we do not forget that it was under Labour that regional pay was first introduced in to the courts system. We opposed that move then and we oppose the current suggestion made by chancellor George Osborne that a similar system could be rolled out across other civil service departments.
“Like many of our colleagues in Westminster, Welsh Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to regional pay.”
The developments led to great hilarity within the ranks of Plaid Cymru, whose economy spokesman Alun Ffred Jones observed:
“Listening to the speakers today from the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats, you would not believe that one of them belongs to the same party as George Osborne and the other is in coalition with them in London.”
Nuclear power plant plan scrapped
There was considerable surprise and concern, meanwhile, at the news E.ON and RWE npower were scrapping plans to build a new nuclear power station on the site of the current Wylfa plant in Anglesey.
Outlining the decision, E.ON UK’s chief executive Dr Tony Cocker explained:
“E.ON has decided to focus its investment in the UK on other strategic projects that will allow us to deliver earlier benefit for customers and our company, rather than the very long term and large investment new nuclear power calls for.
“Our commitment to the UK remains as strong as ever and as our track record shows, with over £1bn of investment in the last year alone, we will continue to select the right projects in which to invest.”
Summing the situation up, Iolo ap Dafydd, BBC Wales environment correspondent, wrote:
“Horizon is the company behind plans to build new nuclear power stations at Oldbury and Wylfa. We had been waiting for an announcement on new nuclear reactors for Wylfa – we were expecting confirmation this month – it didn’t come. Instead we have this bombshell.
“There’s quite a lot of history here – not least the Fukushima disaster in Japan. It’s worth remembering the German government fairly quickly decided there would not be any support for a new nuclear build.
“Both companies are based in Germany and there are quite a lot of risks a year on from Fukushima – in terms of a market risk, a cost risk, a construction risk, and a political risk.
“It’s worth remembering there are two nuclear power plants being built in Europe at the moment – one in Finland and in France. Both are behind schedule, and both have run into considerable overspends.”
“Despite the government’s efforts to bend over backwards to support the nuclear industry, it’s now blindingly clear that the economics of nuclear just don’t stack up.
“Three major utilities have now pulled out of nuclear plans in the UK, and the only two reactors under construction in Europe are massively over-budget and behind schedule.
“The government needs to wake up… If it backs the renewables industry instead of flogging the nuclear horse, the UK could become a world leader in a sector that’s already seeing massive growth.”
There were five by-elections this week:
• Buxton Central Ward, High Peak District Council: Lab hold.
– Lab 416 (45%, +3.4); Con 396 (42.9%, +9.4); LD 70 (7.6%, -3.4); Ind 42 (4.5%, +4.5). Swing of 3% from Lab to Con since 2011.
• Cowden & Hever Ward, Sevenoaks District Council: Con hold.
– Con 296 (78.5%); UKIP 81 (21.5%). Con was unopposed in 2011.
• Crokenhill & West Hill Ward, Sevenoaks District Council: Lab gain from Ind. Lab.
– Lab 304 (58.3%); Con 177 (34%); UKIP 40 (7.7%). Ind was unopposed in 2011.
• Heckington Rural Ward, North Kesteven District Council: Con hold.
– Con 578 (53.1%, -2.6); Ind 510 (46.9%, +20.6). Swing of 11.6% from Con to Ind since 2011.
• Southfields Ward, London Borough of Wandsworth: Con hold.
– Con 1841 (49.1%, +0.1); Lab 1511 (40.3%, +17.3); LD 220 (5.9%, -13.3); Green 100 (2.7%, -4.6); UKIP 40 (1.1%, +1.1); Ind 38 (1%, +1). Swing of 8.6% from Con to Lab since 2010.