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Smith Square Review - 17 March 2017

Fri, 03/17/2017

Mayday, Mayday, it's another referendum 

The gloves have come off. This week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call on Number 10 to allow a second Scottish independence referendum by 2019 was met with a resounding NO. Now is not the time, she declared.

Nicola Sturgeon made clear a couple of weeks back that if this was the outcome to her official request, the SNP would press ahead with an unsanctioned referendum anyway. Still, clever of Nicola to sneak into this week’s precious media lull and get Scottish independence back in the public spotlight, especially ahead of the SNP conference in Aberdeen this week.

Yet as Question Time audiences recently showed (see here and here), the SNP has its PR work cut out. Getting Brits to take the threat seriously is proving surprisingly hard, even when the prospect of the Union’s demise is the last thing we need. The rise and fall of a much-hyped second UK referendum on the EU and the daily Brexit-braying in the news has certainly left the electorate tired, desensitised, and eager to return to normalcy. At least, that seems to be the mood this side of the border.

 

Woe-Phil week for Hammond

Philip Hammond found himself on the ropes this week as he was forced into an embarrassing U turn over the proposed increase in national insurance contributions announced in the Budget.

As highlighted in last week’s edition, the planned rise was greeted with disdain by many Conservative backbenchers as it broke a key manifesto promise from the 2015 General Election. This disdain was enough to force the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to reconsider, though it was unfortunately too late for Sir Desmond Swayne MP, who confessed to the House that his supportive article had already gone to print.

Though Theresa May declared that she had “absolute faith” in Philip Hammond after the announcement, some moderate Conservatives have condemned the Prime Minister for failing to adequately defend the Chancellor.

Hammond notified the Treasury Select Committee of the reversal through a letter, which contained this wonderful bit of politics speak: “it is very important both to me and to the Prime Minister that we are compliant not just with the letter, but also the spirit, of the commitments that were made”.

SSR translation: 'I didn’t think people would care this much. Sorry.'

 

Conservative Party gets BUS-ted

Theresa May and the Conservative’s bad week continued with the news that more than a dozen police forces have handed files to the CPS with allegations that MPs broke spending rules at the last election. The Electoral Commission swiftly followed this news by confirming that, as a result of its own investigations, the Conservatives will be fined a record £70,000 for failures to report election expenses.

The majority of the police complaints concern how expenses from the Road Trip 2015 battlebus – already subject to enough scandal of its own – were recorded by local MPs. Up to 20 Conservative MPs in key marginal seats are under investigation personally. All deny any wrongdoing.

If the CPS do decide to pursue any criminal prosecutions, life for the Prime Minister could get very tricky indeed. The already slim Tory majority in the House of Commons could become even slimmer if MPs are charged and by elections are needed.

May’s No10 machine is also at risk; it is alleged that her joint staff Nick Timothy spent the election campaign in the South Thanet seat running the ‘stop Farage’ campaign, without declaring the proper expenses.

However, every cloud has a silver lining; in this case for the people of South Thanet. The good news is, should Tory MP Craig McKinley be disqualified, Nigel Farage has already confirmed he would stand in the ensuing by-election. Keep trying Nigel!

 

EU any closer to pushing the button?

In another dramatic week in Westminster, the Queen officially gave Royal Assent to the Brexit Bill.

Tory’s in the House cheered as the most controversial bill in living memory formally became an Act of Parliament. This signals the beginning of the end of Britain’s involvement in the post war consensus that eventually created the single market, and nearly 60 years to the day since the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

As Brexit backers celebrated, the pound fell to an eight week low against the dollar, making it one of the worst performing major currencies in the world, with strategists at Deutsche Bank predicting the UK currency to fall "much lower" in the months to come.

The German lender is increasingly predicting a "no deal" scenario for the UK. With the timeline for negotiations tight due to French and German elections later this year, meaningful discussions are unlikely until the autumn. This increases the likelihood that unravelling decades of economic and diplomatic agreements within the two year timeframe is somewhat unachievable.

 

Souvenir of the week

Political communications can be a tough job. Every word you say, write or tweet is scrutinised. Every figure quoted is analysed, every promise is etched in the memories of the media forever. With this in mind, its always helpful to get the name of your party right. Amateur hour.