The Brexit waiting game

Written by Jenni Davidson on 16 January 2017 in Inside Politics

As Theresa May prepares to outline her plans for Brexit this week, will that be the end to the uncertainty?

UK and European flag - Image credit: istock

For the first time in three years, in 2017 we have neither a national election nor a referendum.

Or so it seemed until the resignation of Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, last week over the ‘cash for ash’ energy debacle, which looks likely to lead to another Northern Ireland Assembly election.

While that should not directly affect Scotland too much, it may well cause further delays to decisions on Brexit if the approval of the devolved parliaments is needed.

And that may set the tone for this year, which apart from a renewed focus on local government, with the Scottish local government elections in May seeing Labour in particular battling to retain control of a number of Scottish councils, is likely to see, mainly, a continuation of the same constitutional conundrums, debates and delays around Brexit that characterised much of 2016.


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Perhaps those involved in managing Brexit, whether for or against, are now regretting that they didn’t just trigger Article 50 immediately after the referendum to get the ball rolling.

What seemed on the morning after Brexit to be a clear, if close, result, has become ever more confused, as different people claim to know what the electorate really voted for, what other EU countries will or won’t countenance in a possible deal and the UK Government continues to play its cards close to its chest – if indeed it is holding any cards at all – with regards to what its negotiating position will be.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has been accused of being indecisive; she was recently nicknamed ‘Theresa Maybe’ by The Economist for her extreme caution in articulating what her plans are for Brexit – and indeed the specifics of many other policies.

This lack of information has concerned both those in her own party and outside it.

Conservative MP for Bath Ben Howlett told the Guardian last week: “People want detail. People need detail. If the Prime Minister does what she did as home secretary and not say much then she’s going to really find it difficult to keep the party with her.”

And the lack of information seems to have had a negative effect on relations between the First Minister and Theresa May too.

Nicola Sturgeon described her feelings as “deeply frustrated”, as she left Brexit discussions in October, none the wiser on the UK Government’s position.

She said: “We discussed the UK’s negotiating position in general, but it is safe to say we got no more information or detail on that than we had before we went into the meeting, and I got the strong sense the UK Government itself doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve.”

The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, immediately after New Year increases doubt about the UK Government’s plans.

Rogers, appointed by David Cameron in 2013, had been expected to play a key role in the Brexit negotiations. Instead the fallout from his resignation has put a further spanner in the works.

In December it was revealed he had advised the UK Government that Brexit could take up to 10 years and any deal might not be ratified by other countries’ parliaments, an embarrassment to the Government, who had suggested it could be complete by 2019.

And following his resignation, a leaked internal email saw him questioning the experience and skills in Whitehall, as he urged fellow civil servants to challenge “muddled thinking” and convey the “unvarnished” views of the other EU member states.

“I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power,” he wrote to colleagues in the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union (UKREP).

He also wrote: “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council.

“The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have – a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKREP – and negotiates resolutely.

“Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27 [EU member states].”

The departure was welcomed by some in the Leave camp who suggested Rogers was too pessimistic, but in a tweet former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson hit out at the UK Government’s “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise”.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government published its plans for Brexit, ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, in December, calling for Scotland to remain in the single market and gain further devolved powers over areas to be repatriated from the EU.

Downing Street has said it would “look closely” at the proposal, and it is expected to be discussed at this month’s Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe.

But if the UK as a whole leaves the single market, it is clear a second independence referendum remains a possibility at some point.

“[T]he option of a second referendum must be on the table. And it is on the table,” said Nicola Sturgeon in a speech outside Bute House on the morning after the EU referendum.

Last week the First Minister ruled out holding another independence referendum in 2017, but reiterated that in the event of a hard Brexit, it remains on the cards.

She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “They will be making a big mistake if they think I’m in any way bluffing because if it comes to the point, you know, two years after Scotland’s been told – the quote in the independence referendum was ‘Scotland, don’t leave the UK, lead the UK’.

“Here we are, we voted to stay in the EU, we were told that voting ‘No’ was the only way we could stay in the EU and we now face being taken out of the EU.

“Now, that creates a much more fundamental question for Scotland. If on something as fundamentally important as the membership of the EU and the single market and all the implications that has for us, if we’re going to be ignored, if our voice is going to be completely cast aside, our interests cast aside, then that can happen on anything.

“And we have to ask ourselves in Scotland – are we happy to have the direction of our country, the kind of country we want to be, determined by a right-wing Conservative government, perhaps for the next 20 years, or do we want to take control of our own future?

“In those circumstances I think it would be right for Scotland to have the opportunity to decide.”

She may not be bluffing, but with the polls showing support for independence resolutely stuck at around 45 per cent and a BMG Research opinion poll published this month showing 61.5 per cent of Scots against another independence referendum this year, she will not want to be forced into calling one without seeing some indication of a change in public opinion either.

So that too will be part of the waiting game.

And although there may be little appetite for another referendum of any kind in Scotland at the moment, there is little to challenge the rhetoric that the only constitutional options are either Scotland in the single market or another independence referendum.

In December Kezia Dugdale called for a constitutional convention on a new federal solution for the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn last week appeared to undermine the idea, objecting her term ‘new act of union’, although supporting the idea of a constitutional convention in principal, but few people seem to have the appetite for a further shake up of the country at this time and Labour lacks the strength of mandate to propose it anyway.

Speaking to Radio Scotland last week, Ruth Davidson said it was not a “binary choice” between being in the single market or not, with different levels of access possible, but until the UK Government clarifies what is to be expected from negotiations, it is difficult for the party in Scotland to come up with definitive rebuttals to SNP proposals.

Theresa May will give a speech this week outlining her vision for Brexit and the Supreme Court is also due to return with its decision shortly on whether an act of parliament is needed to trigger Article 50 and if legislative consent of the devolved administrations is required.

Decisions will have to be made fast if the UK Government is to meet its target of March for beginning negotiations.

Unless Theresa May decides to call a snap general election in an attempt to increase her majority and shakes things up further. Still a possibility.

Once the ball is rolling, if there are more delays, all parties will be able to further refine their positions and key asks.

And, despite the ongoing narrative that Scotland voted to remain, with more than a third of Scots having voted for Brexit, there is room for further discussion about what it is that Scotland wants from the negotiations.

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