Boris Johnson's 'might of the union' message aimed at Wales as well as Scotland

Boris Johnson meets fishermen on a visit to Scotland
Boris Johnson is visiting Scotland to mark a year since he became Prime Minister Credit: PA

Boris Johnson’s ‘might of the union’ comments ahead of his visit to Scotland mark his latest effort to assert the strength of the United Kingdom, but the very fact that they're being made highlights the tensions that exist.

Those tensions are real even though the four governments have been working together during the coronavirus pandemic, something the Prime Minister referred to.

Mr Johnson said: "The last six months have shown exactly why the historic and heartfelt bond that ties the four nations of our country together is so important and the sheer might of our union has been proven once again. More than ever, this shows what we can achieve when we stand together, as one United Kingdom."

On a visit to Orkney in Scotland, the Prime Minister reiterated the "merits of the union" and reaffirmed his commitment to supporting all parts of the British Isles.

He highlighted 900,000 Scottish jobs that the UK Government says its actions have saved.

Here in Wales, the UK Government says it has protected more than 316,000 jobs, helped thousands of businesses and paid out millions of pounds to more than 100,000 people who are self-employed. 

Those reminders represent what I’ve previously described as ‘aggressive unionism' - a renewed determination to trumpet the benefits to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It started before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Under Theresa May, ministers and civil servants were told that the days of 'devolve and forget' were over. The Wales Office was rebranded as 'UK Government in Wales' and many of its operations in Wales are being brought together in a more visible hub office in central Cardiff.

But it's certainly stepped up recently. Regular updates point out the amount of money being spent in Wales on furlough and other rescue schemes as well as the extra £2.8bn given directly to the Welsh Government as a result of spending commitments in England. Some of that has led to a particularly angry dispute.

Then in the face of concerns from the Welsh Government and outright hostility from the Scottish Government, the UK Government presented its proposed UK Internal Market Bill as a 'power surge' not a 'power grab.'

Around 30 MPs have set up a Conservative Union Research Group, led by Aberconwy MP Robin Millar to keep the union of the UK at the top of the UK Government's agenda. It's inspired by the European Research Group which came to the fore during parliament's Brexit crisis.

There were plans to build a relief road around Newport to help ease congestion in the area. Credit: PA

And the Prime Minister himself has continued to raise eyebrows every time he promises to build an M4 relief road. He doesn't have the power to do so but it hasn't stopped him saying it.

The trouble is that the aggressive unionism is being matched by something else. Not support for independence although Mark Drakeford is on record as saying that his support for the union is not unconditional. No, what he’s spoken of and is increasingly on display is what he calls ‘assertive devolution.’

What that means is an increasing willingness to highlight differences and discord as for example when the Finance Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland joined forces to urge the chancellor to make sweeping changes to the way devolved governments are funded.

It's seen too in increasing divergence in the easing of lockdown restrictions. At the beginning of the crisis, and for the first two lockdown reviews, there was virtually no difference and the Prime Minister's announcements covered the whole of the UK. No longer.

At official level, the two governments are working closely together. Mark Drakeford has said repeatedly that when ministers speak, engagement is good, but that it happens patchily.

The UK Government sees it differently. There have been more than 125 'engagements' (meetings, phone calls, conference calls) according to the Welsh Secretary.

Credit: PA Images

Simon Hart told a recent meeting of the Senedd Finance Committee that "Since day one of this crisis, there has been a steady, regular, collaborative and positive liaison between Ministers in Welsh Government, Ministers in UK Government, officials in both institutions ... and I think it's a pity when it has been suggested that somehow that has either been insufficient or, in some cases, non-existent. It is simply not the case."

And yet, Cobra - the UK Cabinet committee which at the start of the crisis brought together ministers, First Ministers, officials and scientists several times a week - hasn’t met since May 10th. Boris Johnson hasn’t spoken to the First Ministers since May 28th and won’t be meeting Nicola Sturgeon today.

As happened before the pandemic, it's the cabinet office minister, Michael Gove who has been leading the discussions between the governments and does have frequent phone calls and conference calls. 

But the devolved governments shouldn’t always expect to be included, the Welsh Secretary told the finance committee. 

"We don't expect or require—nor could we—Welsh Government to give us advance notice of policy announcements and decisions that it's going to make, even ones with a fiscal consequence. And so, again, I have been a bit mystified that apparently the opposite should be the case, and I sort of slightly feel that we either have devolution or we don't."

The Five Hundred Million Pounds Feud

One flashpoint has been a dispute over extra money coming to Wales as a result of the Chancellor’s Summer Statement, a seemingly-abstract disagreement which illustrates differences and divisions between the two governments. 

Directly after Rishi Sunak announced his spending plans, the UK Government said that it would trigger an extra £500m for the Welsh Government as a result of money committed to projects in England. 

The Treasury issued a statement saying:

A day later on the 9th July the Welsh Finance Minister said on twitter that they were only getting £12.5 million in consequentials from the Summer Statement.

Welsh Government officials who’d gone through the figures said the increases of which they were being formally notified added up £434m not £500m. 

£420m of it, they told ministers, related to funds already announced as coming to Wales including £59m to help arts and culture organisations and £283m for buying PPE “which obviously has nothing to do with economic stimulus” as one official put it to me. 

£12.5m was ‘new’ in that it hadn’t been announced previously and came from spending in England on traineeships, sector-based academies, the ’18-19 Classroom Offer’ and the National Careers Service.

“So while the £500 million isn’t wholly fictitious,” a senior Welsh Government official told me at the time, “giving the impression that this is all related to economic stimulus and yesterday’s speech is wholly misleading.”

The row continued to escalate.

On the 10th July Simon Hart told my ITV Wales news colleague, that the £12.5m figure was “a lie” and that he was “frankly staggered that they thought that was a sensible thing to say.”

On July 13th he told the Senedd Finance Committee that the UK Government stood by the figures. 

On July 14th the Welsh Government confirmed the total figure in a written statement which stated that "We have so far received around £2.8bn in consequential funding from the UK Government” 

But on July 16th the Finance Minister came back to the argument, when she tweeted a link to an Institute for Fiscal Studies article and wrote that “Wales did not receive £500m as a result of last week’s Summer Economic Update. I welcome the IFS calls for the UK Government to follow our more transparent approach.”

A Welsh Government source told me, “I think the figures speak for themselves. We’re not saying that we’ve not had (most of) the consequentials, just that the impression they gave was that this was all about what the Chancellor was talking about – the economic stimulus – and most of what we are receiving has nothing to do with that – indeed as you can see well over half is for PPE, much of which we’ve had to spend already.”

Simon Hart told the Finance Committee he suspected it was an example of Welsh Government copying the anti-union approach of the SNP Scottish Government.

He told MSs that “it was quite obvious that within a few moments of Scottish colleagues raising a question about the validity of the, I think, £800 million Barnett consequential that they were receiving from last week's announcement, an almost identical claim was made of an almost identical sum by colleagues in Cardiff.”

It may seem like an abstract kind of argument but it's one that vividly illustrates the tensions between the governments because it's not just about money or not even about money. It's about who's in charge, who decides what's spent and most crucially, who gets to tell the story. And that tussle isn't going to end any time soon.