This week’s edition covers the actions of the new Prime Minister as well as the Scottish Independence campaign.
PMQs started rather solemnly this week. With Remembrance Day on the following Friday, all leaders were sure to pay their respects to the soldiers who had given their lives for the country.
Neil Coyle, Independent MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, started the session with a searching question on the nature of the lockdowns in response to the Pandemic, bringing up the “sacrifices” of the people of his constituency, claiming that “these people were betrayed by the Conservative Party who partied their way through lockdown”. Coyle finished by asking the Prime Minster whether he can “promise today that he will use his power of veto to ensure that no one who received a FPN (fixed penalty notice) for breaking COVID laws will be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords”. Sunak responded by asserting that the Conservative Party “protected people’s jobs” and “[protected] the NHS to get through the difficult times” as well as “rolling out the fastest vaccine programme in Europe”.
With the resignation of Sir Gavin Williamson still fresh in minds, Keir Starmer confronted Sunak on his appointment to Cabinet, bringing up accounts of Williamson’s misdemeanours, asking the PM how “the Prime Minister thinks the victim [of Williamson’s “slit their throat” comment] of that bullying felt when he expressed great sadness at his resignation”. Sunak riposted by stating that “unequivocally the behaviour was unacceptable”; however, he claimed innocence, maintaining that he “did not know about any of the specific concerns of his conduct as Secretary of State or Chief Whip”, finishing by listing the principles of “consideration and respect” that the government will stand by. Starmer responded to this by calling Williamson a “pathetic bully”, whose behaviour was only made possible through government appointment. The Labour leader finished by questioning the Prime Minister on whether he “regrets his decision to make him a government minister”. Sunak responded by saying that he “obviously regrets appointing someone who has had to resign in these circumstances”, but then asserted that the British people will feel assured that “when situations like this arise, that they will be dealt with properly”. The PM then continued that the investigation will be characterised by “integrity, professionalism, and accountability”. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the cross-examination was Sunak’s statement that Labour did not stand for the working-class people, and that this was what the Conservative Party was doing, when replying to Starmer’s questions on the failure to tax oil companies.
After Starmer’s questioning of the Prime Minister, Ian Blackford, Leader of the SNP in the Commons, began his. He also probed Sunak’s judgement in relation to his admission of Williamson to Cabinet, claiming it “every bit as bad as his predecessors”. He went on to mention Liz Truss’ plan to put four Tory MPs into the House of Lords, including the current Secretary of State for Scotland. Blackford questioned whether it was right to let someone sit in Cabinet when they “are far more interested in getting [their] hands on an ermine robe than playing by the rules of Scottish democracy”. Sunak replied that he was not going to comment on mere speculation of such a list’s existence, and that if there was a list, it would follow the law. Blackford maintained how “corrupt this all looks”, before going on to ask for a by-election due to the current Secretary of State for Scotland’s distractions by the House of Lords. Finishing his tirade, he asked Sunak whether he “has any integrity left, will he now put a stop to these two predecessors stuffing the House of Lords with his cronies”. Sunak replied that he and the Secretary of State are proudly working together to “deliver for the people of Scotland”.
Overall, this was a highly active session – especially Starmer and Sunak’s debate.
The Welsh Devolution
Recently a Senedd cross-party committee, chaired by Huw Irranca-Davies, a Labour MS (member of Senedd), has reported on the Welsh government bypassing the Senedd by leaning on Westminster. According to the BBC, this report has said that the trend “could undermine the Senedd […] and the underlying principles of devolution”.
The Senedd is important for passing legislature in the devolved nation, from fiscal policy to cultural laws. However, Westminster can also get involved in matters devolved to the Senedd, normally via the Welsh Government, though for this to happen the Senedd must vote for legislative consent motions. Whilst this may seem highly democratic, the nature of this ‘all or nothing’ vote does not give the Senedd time to properly look through the legislation in any depth, and these motions therefore can seriously hamper the ability for the Senedd to preside over devolved matters.
The cross-party report found that there has been a large increase in such motions, rising from 48 during the whole 2016-2021 Senedd term, to 44 since the election in last May. Irranca-Davies voiced his frustration at the committee’s findings: “We would much prefer to have contributed to the improvement of legislation being made in the Senedd as a means of delivering the best possible solutions for communities across Wales – a role for which Senedd members are elected”.
Gavin Williamson sacking
Gavin Williamson has left the Cabinet (where he was serving as a Minister of State without Portfolio) amid accusations of bullying raised by former Deputy Chief Whip Anne Milton. Milton claims that this happened during his tenure as Chief Whip under Theresa May, from 2016-2017. He was accused of verbally attacking a Civil Servant, telling them to “slit their throat”, as well as sending aggressive text messages to Wendy Morton, former Chief Whip under Liz Truss.
This sacking marks a significant U-turn for Rishi Sunak, who came out in support of Williamson once these texts came into the public eye, stating that he had “full confidence” in the MP, and that he had “an important contribution to make to the government”. These comments were made on Monday. Sir Gavin Williamson stepped down on Tuesday, as calls for him to resign heated up, stating in his resignation that he refutes “the characterisation of these claims, but I recognise these are becoming a distraction for the good work this government is doing. I have therefore decided to step back from government so that I can comply fully with the complaints process that is under way and clear my name of any wrongdoing”.
In the following PMQs session, Sunak claimed that he “did not know about any of the specific concerns relating to his conduct” when questioned by Keir Starmer. This marks the first real controversy that Sunak has faced (apart from maybe the Braverman appointment), and it will be interesting to see how the Conservative Party reacts to this.
Supreme Court weighs against Hillside Parks Ltd
The Supreme Court has come to a conclusion on the Hillside Parks v Snowdonia National Park Authority case, blocking the construction of a 401-home development near Aberdyfi, on the coast of Eastern Wales. The plot was granted to John Madin in 1967 by the Merioneth County Council, and it was agreed that 401 homes would be built on the Aberdyfi site. However, the site has changed hands multiple times, sold to Landmaster Investments in 1978 and then to Hillside Parks Ltd in 1988. The land it was situated in also changed council jurisdiction, as the Merioneth County Council was abolished in 1974, being replaced by the Gwynedd County Council.
From 1967-1973, Madin and the Merioneth County Council made seven changes to the parameters of the land agreement, diverging from the original claims. However, according to court documents, the legal disputes did not start until 1987, when “[Gwynedd County Council] argued in proceedings brought in the High Court by Landmaster Investments Ltd, which owned the Site at that time, that the 1967 Permission had lapsed (“the 1987 proceedings”). The High Court rejected that argument, deciding that the development authorised by the 1967 Permission could still lawfully be completed at any time”.
In 1996, the Snowdonia National Park Authority became the local planning authority, making eight further amendments to the development plan between 1996 and 2011. In 2017, the Authority ordered that all work on the site must be stopped, claiming that the 1967 plan was no longer valid as subsequential departures had made it impossible to implement. Hillside Parks reacted by taking the Park Authority to court; as the court documents say, “Hillside Parks Ltd […] brought a claim against the Authority, in order to ascertain whether the scheme of development authorised by the 1967 Permission could still lawfully be completed”.
In the meantime, Welsh politicians weighed in on the case, Liz Saville Roberts, Leader of Plaid Cymru in the Commons, and Mabon ap Gwynfor issued a joint statement that argued “this proposed overdevelopment would bring no benefit to the local community”, overwhelming local infrastructure.
The Supreme Court has now ruled in favour of the Snowdonia National Park Authority, claiming it would be “physically impossible” for the site to be developed as the plans have deviated so significantly since they were first penned in 1967.