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15 February 2023

Westminster Tories can beat the SNP after all

With Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, Alister Jack can call himself giantslayer.

By Henry Hill

We will have to wait for the history books – and the inevitable autobiography – for the definitive account of why Nicola Sturgeon has chosen this moment to announce her intention to resign as First Minister of Scotland. But whatever the full story turns out to be, Alister Jack has surely earned his place in the Conservative and Unionist pantheon.

In wielding his power as Scottish Secretary, under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998, to veto the Scottish government’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill, he defied 25 years of received wisdom on devolution. A constitutional showdown between the First Minister and a Westminster Tory could surely only have one winner, and it wasn’t him. The SNP believed this myth too, or at least peddled it: only this weekend the Sunday Telegraph reported Sturgeon’s plan to try to reframe the row as a “constitutional battle”.

On Monday (13 February), however, polling from Lord Ashcroft showed the flaw in that strategy. He found that 43 per cent of Scots opposed the bill and thought Westminster was right to block it, while 22 per cent supported it and thought Westminster was wrong. And, by 50 per cent to 28 per cent, Scots “would rather have a law made in Westminster that they agreed with than a law made in Scotland that they disagreed with”.

Two days later and Sturgeon has said she will resign. Perhaps her successor will press ahead with a legal challenge to the veto, although as Ian Smart, a Scottish lawyer, points out, their chances of success are slim.

Regardless, Jack has earned himself the soubriquet of giant slayer. In so doing, he may also have a decisive impact on the government’s own constitutional strategy.

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As Union correspondent for ConservativeHome, I have received plenty of reports from the front lines of the running battle inside government on how to handle the SNP. On one side are usually massed the three Territorial Offices (the Whitehall departments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), along with groups such as the Conservative Union Research Unit, a caucus of 70 backbench MPs, pushing for a more pro-active (or “muscular”) approach. On the other side there is usually Michael Gove, whose empire at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities includes responsibility for the Union, and Sue Gray, the Whitehall veteran he chose to lead on the Union in the Cabinet Office.

These forces have previously clashed over such issues as the importance of getting legislative consent motions from the devolved legislatures for Westminster. There is also deep frustration in some quarters at the Cabinet Office’s extremely restrictive approach to using section 50 of the UK Internal Market Act (2020), which authorises the government to spend in devolved areas at its own discretion. The architects of the act intended this to kick off an energetic programme of interventions to raise the profile of the British state after a quarter-century of “devolve and forget”. Yet following the collapse of Boris Johnson’s Union Unit, this never materialised.

An official change in policy in the near-term seems unlikely. The recent reshuffle, apparently an expression of Rishi Sunak’s priorities, left the Department for Levelling Up untouched. What that says about where the Union, levelling up and the housing crisis fall in his scheme of priorities is an interesting question. But the Prime Minister did sign off Jack’s expedition up the constitutional beanstalk – and the whole party saw him slay the giant at the top.

[See also: What is behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation?]

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