Rory Stewart pledges ‘Department of the Union’ post-Brexit

A new Department for the Union should be given control of billions of pounds worth of regional investment funds after Brexit to strengthen the UK, Tory leadership challenger Rory Stewart has said.

Conservative leadership hopeful Rory Stewart pledged to strengthen the Union
Conservative leadership hopeful Rory Stewart pledged to strengthen the Union

Stewart said that as prime minister, he would make the holder of the post his deputy as First Secretary of State and give them control of a department with a budget that would make it a significant presence on Whitehall.

It comes as Stewart, the surprise package in the Tory leadership race, scrambles to secure the 33 votes needs in the second ballot of MPs on Tuesday to remain in the contest. He scraped through with 19 votes on Thursday. The votes of least four Scottish MPs are ‘up for grabs’ following the elimination or withdrawal of four candidates in the past week.

Stewart, one of two Scots in the race, also warned that Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan, which would see the UK leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal, would “impose tensions” on the Union.

“My parents lived in Crieff – my father’s now died, but my father’s buried in Scotland, and my mother lives in Scotland,” Mr Stewart told Scotland on Sunday.

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“I’m a Scottish MP representing an English constituency with half the Scottish border in my constituency. So I live in my daily life the relationship of the United Kingdom.”

He added: “I think one of the problems in Scotland is that people can see what the Scottish Government is doing, but they don’t understand what benefits they’re getting from the United Kingdom government.”

EU structural funds, designed to boost economically disadvantaged areas, will invest a total of £15bn in the UK over the seven-year period to 2020.

The UK government has said the EU scheme will be replaced with a ‘shared prosperity fund’ after Brexit, although a consultation on the programme has been delayed by more than six months by the chaos of the UK’s exit and the end of Theresa May’s premiership.

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Ministers – lobbied by Scottish Conservative MPs – have said they want the new fund to support businesses and local authorities across the UK directly bypassing devolved governments, which currently have responsibility for administering EU structural funds.

The SNP has denounced the proposals as a “power grab” that would “tear up the Scotland Act”.

Responsibility for drawing up the shared prosperity fund currently rests with the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

But Stewart said this should transfer to a new Department for the Union, replacing territorial departments like the Scotland Office, which would invest in projects that strengthen the Union and highlight the role of the UK government in all four nations.

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“I would create a new post, a First Secretary of State which would be a much more empowered, strengthened position, and I would put the European structural funds behind that position – billions of pounds per year – to make sure that people felt in their daily lives what the United Kingdom was doing for them,” Stewart said.

He added: “The Secretary of State for the Union should do this, and they should negotiate directly… proposals should come from local areas. Glasgow knows much better than anyone in London what kind of development you need in Glasgow.

“The relationship would then be between the First Secretary of State for the Union and Glasgow to deliver, for instance, business tourism, if that was the proposal; or superfast broadband in the Borders; or almost any aspect of Scottish culture, infrastructure, or business which could be something that the UK government could support.”

Asked whether Boris Johnson’s willingness to carry out a no-deal Brexit was a threat to the Union, Stewart said: “If a Prime Minister pursues something the majority of the people in a nation don’t want, that necessarily imposes tensions, particularly given that a no-deal Brexit would be economically damaging.”