Lockdown redux, smoother waters but a brewing storm

By Simon Gentry , Public Affairs

Matt Hancock MP, the Secretary of State for Health, came to the Commons today to announce what millions had been fearing, a move to Tier 2 and in some cases Tier 3 for communities in England.  At the urging of its Mayor, Sadiq Khan, London will go into Tier 2 at midnight on Friday, crushing the struggling hospitality trade just as it had begun to emerge from the long dry summer.

In Manchester, the Mayor, Andy Burnham, is threatening legal action against the decision to plunge that city into Tier 3 restrictions, despite the fact that the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Kier Starmer, is calling for a full, nationwide lockdown.

Meanwhile in another part of the forest, and rhetoric aside, London and Brussels (and Paris and Berlin) are beginning to see a path towards an agreement on a future trade relationship.  That’s not to say an agreement has been reached, but a path is emerging.  The UK seems to be willing to compromise on the vexed issue of State Aid, accepting a number of high-level principles that would govern both the UK and the EU’s constituent members. 

Appearing before a parliamentary Committee, the UK’s lead negotiator, David Frost, recognised that EU member states are often more lax and generous with state aid than the UK and that there are occasions when this damages the interests of British competitors.  An opportunity to level the playing field may not be unattractive. 

This then leaves the even more vexed issue of fishing rights in British waters.  This is particularly difficult for France, which has a fishing industry largely dependent on the stocks around these islands and is calling on the EU Commission to play hardball.  In some ways it’s a victory for the UK team that the final issue is one on which the UK has considerable leverage.  Although the Prime Minister’s deadline of this weekend for a conclusion to the negotiations will be missed, the chances of no-deal are smaller than they have been.

While things may be looking up on the European side, the Prime Minister is facing what appears to be a growing crisis in Scotland.  All nine of the last polls taken there seem to show growing support for Scottish independence.  The Scottish Nationalists look on course for a historic victory in next May’s elections, trouncing both Labour and the Conservatives – and making the demand for a second referendum impossible for Westminster to refuse.  The depth charge lobbed into our constitution by Tony Blair’s government may well be on course to explode next year. 

In response, the Government is thinking hard about how it manages the situation after 6 May.  Michael Gove MP, the de-facto deputy Prime Minister, is believed to be interested in the idea that the ‘divorce’ agreement would need to be negotiated before the vote took place, to allow Scottish voters to know exactly what their future would be.  The Scottish Nationalists’ response is that that they would like to open negotiations about joining the European Union in parallel and as soon as the principle of a second referendum was accepted in London.

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