Brexit and Scotland: special deals, divorce bills and budgets

Written by Tom Freeman on 21 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Analysis: What the fragility of the UK Government means for Scotland and Brexit

Nicola Sturgeon outside number 10 - PA

“We didn’t get to a point of agreement today, but I think we did develop a better understanding of each other’s positions.”

Speaking on the steps of Downing Street, Nicola Sturgeon’s assessment of her half-hour meeting with Theresa May was succinct, and certainly fell short of optimism about Scotland’s influence on Brexit.

The Prime Minister, reporters were briefed, “encouraged the Scottish Government to continue to work with counterparts”.

Nevertheless, the so-called ‘power-grab’ by Westminster through the repatriation of post-Brexit EU responsibilities has become rather limp-fisted in recent weeks, as Theresa May’s government struggles with infighting and indecision.


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The Prime Minister finds herself swimming against a current with many sources.

Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins used an op-ed in The Scotsman to push for post-Brexit powers to be transferred directly to Holyrood. 

“The EU Withdrawal Bill has a long way to go before it is enacted, and it will need to be amended in order to obtain Scottish and Welsh consent,” he said.

While Tomkins wasn’t advocating the automatic devolution of all 111 identified EU competencies, he was asking for a compromise from a government who had originally said they all needed to be given to Whitehall first. Having a prominent ally of Ruth Davidson and the party’s former representative on the Smith Commission apparently challenging David Mundell’s assertion that the Scottish Parliament should just wait for a “powers bonanza”, was significant.

But was the piece a gauntlet thrown down to Westminster colleagues, or did it attempt to foreshadow a concession – a symptom of the potential influence of the rejuvenated Scottish Conservatives in May’s fragile majority? 

If further evidence of this fragility was needed, it came in the unexpected announcement by David Davis to give Tory backbenchers and the opposition a meaningful vote on whatever agreement is eventually brokered with the EU.

A piece of primary legislation on the deal will now be put before MPs, he said, allowing parliament to dissect it “line by line”.

“This means that Parliament will be given time to scrutinise, debate and vote on the final deal we strike with the EU.”

The announcement came only a day before the Withdrawal Bill was to be debated in earnest, but did little to assuage dissent. Perhaps this was because it could be interpreted more as an ultimatum than an olive branch, for if parliament cannot back the deal, he added, the UK will leave with no deal whatsoever.

And with May amending the Withdrawal Bill to formally commit to leaving the EU by 29 March 2019, the Brexit train is hurtling towards its final stop without a deal. Or, apparently, a driver.

“Let no one doubt our determination or question our resolve, Brexit is happening,” she wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Many have suspected the no-deal ‘nuclear option’ has been the favoured approach of the committed Brexiteers from the start, with a leaked letter to Number 10 from arch-conspirators Boris Johnson and Michael Gove complaining of “insufficient energy” on the progress of Brexit.

The one-time leadership rivals also used the letter to undermine the approach of the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, only a fortnight before he was due to deliver a budget in financial conditions deeply unsettled by the Brexit process. Meanwhile the 'divorce bill' is acrimonious, even within the cabinet.

With so many knives out for May in her own ranks, the prospect of a meeting with Sturgeon may have seemed more palatable than it had previously. After all, Scotland’s First Minister has been much more transparent about what she wants than May’s own cabinet, and even listed them in order of significance in the Scottish Government’s negotiation papers: Scotland in the EU, or continuing in the single market and customs union or as near as possible to that arrangement.

As for the Withdrawal Bill, protecting already devolved competencies at the very least is the line in the sand.

But Sturgeon had previously described discussions with May as “very frustrating”, with the Prime Minister unable to give any ground or indication of what areas might be negotiable. 

“This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script,” Sturgeon had said after their previous meeting in March. 

Since then, she has said the devolved nations had been kept “substantially in the dark” on the Brexit talks. There was no sense this meeting had gone any better. 

Nevertheless, it represented somewhat of a thawing of relations, after several months without any formal intergovernmental talks. In fact, after Sturgeon’s previous comments, the UK Government had briefed there would be no more meetings between the two leaders.

But while the paper-talk positioning by Tomkins may have either helped or hindered May in these talks, Sturgeon had a similar problem, with outspoken Edinburgh MP Tommy Sheppard raising the spectre of a second referendum on independence, something Sturgeon had been careful to put on the backburner during the summer.

Sheppard was speaking at a Westminster debate on Scottish independence, brought about because of a petition on the subject. Interestingly, though, it was the volume of signatories to a petition against independence which had brought the debate to the Commons.

In fact, 221,514 people signed a petition against a second referendum – 158,661 of them in Scotland – while another petition backing indyref2 was signed by just 38,515.
That didn’t seem to deter Sheppard. 

“There are only two ways that this can go from here,” he said.

“One is that the United Kingdom Government will come to an agreement with the Scottish Government and that the Brexit process will go through with the consent of the Scottish Parliament. The other option is that the UK Government will ignore the representations of Scotland, overrule them and proceed regardless. 

“In those latter circumstances, I tell you here today that the mandate from 2016 is still there, and it will be executed, because we will give the people of Scotland a right to decide.”

Whether this statement undermined talks between May and Sturgeon or gave them an edge is unknown, but neither woman is likely to have an appetite for another general election or a constitutional referendum in the near future.

In the meantime, the Scottish Government remains keen that as many powers as possible come to Holyrood.

Food and drink, one of Scotland’s recent success stories in terms of exports, for example, currently falls under a number of European frameworks and is growing its markets overseas. 

The Scottish Government wants a “flexible migration deal” so Scotland could benefit from levels of immigration which appear unpopular elsewhere, especially in areas like agriculture, academia and medicine.

And will the four governments of the UK enter into a new relationship as it creates its own ‘internal market’?

An academic paper by Dr Nikos Skoutaris of the University of East Anglia has suggested constitutional change could leave the UK “almost a confederation”.

“Both the current UK and EU constitutional frameworks somehow seem to be unable to accommodate the very different aspirations of the UK constituent nations,” he said.

“In this sense, their significant amendment is almost unavoidable.”

While Sturgeon and May sat down in Downing Street, MPs in the Commons chamber were debating amendments to that legislation.

One, from Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, aimed to give the devolved governments a veto.

But it is from Theresa May’s own backbenches where the most damaging attacks came. 

Veteran Europhile Ken Clarke said: “I am the rebel. I espouse the policies that the Conservative Party has followed for the 50 years of my membership of it, until we had a referendum 18 months ago, and I regret that I have not yet seen the light.”

In terms of this week’s budget, the Scottish Government has asked for a reversal of planned cuts and support for key industries.

Given the Chancellor has already committed to a bumper pay-out for Northern Ireland to secure DUP support, might he make Scotland some kind of concession? 

If he does, it will be a stark contrast to the Northern Ireland Assembly itself, whose budget has been delivered by civil servants and diktat while the parties fail to reach a power-sharing agreement. 

In respect to Northern Ireland the power grab may well be a reluctant one or one forced by circumstance, but it’s a power grab nonetheless.  

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