Review of the political year: twelve months of Brexit chaos and constitutional conundrums

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 28 August 2018 in Inside Politics

With the clock ticking on Brexit, 2018 was the year that constitutional chaos really took hold in the UK

Holyrood review of the year 2018 montage - Image credit: Holyrood

By the time Dominic Raab, the freshly appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, took to his seat in front of the House of Commons Brexit Select Committee, it was tempting to wonder just what was going on in British politics.

With concern over the prospect of a so-called ‘no-deal’ Brexit growing, Raab had obviously arrived in front of the committee with the aim of spreading confidence, and it says quite a bit about the chaos embroiling the Brexit process that that meant refuting suggestions the country could run out of food and medicine.

“We will look at this issue in the round and make sure that there’s adequate food supplies,” he explained to MPs, before adding: “It would be wrong to describe it as the government doing the stockpiling… of course, the idea that we only get food imports into this country from one continent is not appropriate.”

Within a week, the story had moved on to the possibility of putting the armed forces on standby to help deliver food, medicines and fuel in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Again, Number 10 tried to quash the reports, pledging that ministers would publish a series of documents to prepare businesses and the public for no-deal in the autumn, but denying the army was on standby.

How did we get here? For a year that was meant to be defined by the UK ‘taking back control’, things really seem to have spiralled. It’s hard to know where to begin.

There was a feeling in the independence referendum, in 2014, that referendums do funny things to people, and the ensuing reaction of the UK’s most senior politicians to the Brexit vote has done little to dispel that theory.

In September 2017, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority had felt moved to write to then foreign secretary Boris Johnson to rebuke him for repeatedly claiming the UK sent the EU £350m per week and that the money would be freed up by Brexit.

“I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350m per week in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union,” said Sir David Norgrove.

Things got worse for PM Theresa May in October, as her conference speech descended into chaos.

Rendered speechless by a 30-minute coughing fit, May also faced a stage invasion as a prankster bound up to her and succeeded in handing her a P45.

With the piece of paper thrust at her, in front of her entire party and national TV audiences, it might have been better if she had refused to accept it.

But then maybe it doesn’t matter, given the lettering on the stage started to fall off shortly afterwards.

The first resignation came in November, with defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon forced to quit Cabinet following a series of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including reports that he had lunged at a journalist and attempted to kiss her on the lips in 2003.

Next it emerged that Priti Patel, the international development secretary, had held 12 secret meetings with the Israeli government while on a private holiday in the Middle East, and had even mooted the prospect of handing over some of Britain’s aid budget to finance the Israeli Defence Force.

She also had to go. It was all very unusual.

After that, there was a period of relative calm, until Amber Rudd, too, was forced to quit, after the UK Government was found to have wrongly deported or removed dozens of members of the Windrush generation from the UK.

The Home Office was then forced to concede it had no real idea how many people it had already deported, while also admitting it had destroyed thousands of people’s landing card records years ago, despite needing them to prove their immigration status.

The Foreign Secretary was rebuked for “a clear misuse of official statistics” by the official watchdog.

The International Development Secretary was holding secret meetings with a foreign power.

The Home Office was deporting its own citizens. These were not normal times.

Not that Scotland was immune from the UK’s slide into the bizarre.

From the media’s attempts to burn baby boxes – there was a concern they were flammable – to SNP MSP John Mason’s scepticism over whether the Isle of Skye was indeed an island – he felt the bridge invalidated its status – it has been hard to keep up at times.

By the point Maree Todd was being criticised for using her spare time to make some tablet for care-experienced young people, we were left scratching our heads.

By Christmas, SNP MSP Stewart Stevenson was working on plans to send a fish pie to the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, by post.

When pressed, he said he had done it to raise his concerns over the prospect of post-Brexit queues at Dover threatening Scotland’s ability to export fish to mainland Europe, and because he wanted to wish Davis a “Merry Fishmas”.

Actually, he had originally planned to send Davis some langoustines, and it was never clear why he ended up going with a pie.

Six months later, Davis was gone, with the Brexit secretary and long-time Eurosceptic resigning over Theresa May’s Chequers white paper.

Davis had faced a series of suggestions – usually from unnamed sources involved the negotiating process – that he did not have a full grasp of his brief, though the secretary of state did hit back to claim that you “don’t have to be very clever or know that much” to do his job.

As he explained on LBC: “Anybody can do details, I’ll let you do the details.”

But in the end, the details of Theresa May’s Brexit plan were too much for him to stomach, with the PM’s plan aiming to resolve the impasse over the Northern Irish border by pursuing a customs union and regulatory alignment with the EU.

Boris Johnson resigned shortly after Davis, and for a while it appeared that, with two ardent Brexiteers out of her cabinet and apparently isolated, the PM had actually strengthened her position.

Yet within days, the calm unravelled, as both Eurosceptic Tories and European negotiators rejected her plans.

As Michel Barnier put it, in language which may have been eerily familiar to Brexiteers: “Maintaining control of our money, law and borders also applies to the EU customs policy.

“The EU cannot and will not delegate the application of its customs policy and rules, VAT and duty collection to a non-member who would not be subject to the EU governance structures.

“Any customs arrangements or customs union – and I have always said that the EU is open to a customs union – must respect this principle.”

And even now, with six months until the UK leaves the EU, the future is unclear.

But as the UK Government – and segments of the official opposition – became engulfed by an apparent surge in British nationalism, their Scottish counterparts found themselves with constitutional problems of their own.

The year had begun with a fresh start, as Kezia Dugdale resigned as leader of Scottish Labour – before embarking on a short trip to the Australian jungle – with her successor, Richard Leonard, elected on 56.7 per cent of the vote, with a 62.3 per cent turnout.

Leonard had been painted as the most Corbynite of the challengers, though in truth, his politics were probably better understood through his long background in the trade union movement than any specific loyalty to the UK Labour leader.

The contest had been heated, with Dugdale’s decision to travel to Australia on the eve of his victory while still sitting as an MSP only adding to the sense of disorder, and Leonard immediately set about trying to bring unity to a deeply divided party.

Accepting the nomination, he said: “The party will, in my view, come together because we have no choice. We are in third place [in Holyrood]. We do not have the luxury of continuing splits and divisions.

“In any leadership contest, there is a debate of ideas, there is a debate about direction, and that is what we have seen.

“One of the things that has emerged in the course of this long nine-week campaign is a new consensus around where the Labour Party needs to sit politically… which is about extending public ownership, which is about ending austerity, which is about investing in public services and which is about seeing a shift in power from the few to the many.”

But while Leonard set his sights on highlighting growing inequality, Scottish politics, too, was sucked into the Brexit vortex.

Talk of a so-called ‘power grab’ by Westminster had been long running, amid concern that the UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, transferring EU legislation into UK law, would undermine the responsibilities of the devolved administrations.

The SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Lib Dems and Scottish Greens all expressed grave concern over the bill – even the Tories were very uncomfortable with aspects – while the Scottish Government also found allies in Wales.

Releasing a joint statement, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales warned: “We have repeatedly tried to engage with the UK Government on these matters, and have put forward constructive proposals about how we can deliver an outcome which will protect the interests of all the nations in the UK, safeguard our economies and respect devolution.

“Regrettably, the bill does not do this. Instead, it is a naked power-grab, an attack on the founding principles of devolution and could destabilise our economies.”

In the end, after months of fraught negotiation, the Welsh Government reached agreement with Westminster.

But Scotland did not, and the parliament eventually voted to withhold consent for the legislation, as Scottish Brexit minister Michael Russell accused the UK of launching “the worst challenge to devolution since 1999”.

It was all unprecedented. But it was only when Number 10 decided to press ahead, without backing from the Scottish Government, that things really got messy.

For the SNP, the decision to push Brexit through without MSPs’ support constituted a breach of the Sewel convention, under which the UK Parliament cannot normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for the constitution Adam Tomkins rejected this, arguing that these are not normal circumstances, and pointing out that Lord Sewel himself agreed the UK Government’s behaviour was justified. 

And so the dispute fell into familiar lines, with the Tories accusing the SNP of trying to “pick a fight with the rest of the UK” to stoke support for independence, and the SNP, along with others, hitting back to accuse the PM of a disregard for the Scottish Parliament.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon had plenty of other issues that preoccupied her, even without considering the pile-up of constitutional crises.

Donald Trump’s visit had loomed over UK politics for some time, particularly following increased tensions between the UK and Russia after the Salisbury poisonings and accusations from the UK that the Kremlin was responsible.

For Sturgeon, the visit presented a minefield.

As head of the Scottish Government, her position demanded she show respect to the US head of state.

But as a former critic of Trump, and with the public mood in Scotland suggesting the prospect of widespread protest against his arrival, she was also highly constrained in her response.

Fortuitously, the FM was able to avoid an extremely awkward meeting with the man she had previously accused of making “undoubtedly racist” comments after he decided to go straight from a meeting with May in Downing Street to his golf course in Ayrshire.

But, heading into the recess, it was domestic matters that troubled Sturgeon, with her reshuffle thrown into chaos after she was forced to drop her plans to make Gillian Martin her new education minister over “offensive and inappropriate” blog posts on trans people and Jews.

With the Aberdeenshire East MSP having described “an orphaned, single-parent, gender-confused, blind, Aboriginal, one-legged, cross-dressing, lesbian, dyslexic, ex-con, Muslim” as being the “Holy grail” for education institutions, Sturgeon was forced to drop her nomination as minister for further and higher education on the morning of the vote, after opposition parties made clear they would block the move.

Sturgeon had already lost Mark McDonald from her team months earlier over accusations of sexual harassment, with the former minister for childcare and early years admitting that “some of my previous actions have been considered to be inappropriate”.

Pressure grew as the case was investigated, with the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life then ruling that he had been guilty of sexual harassment.

By that point, McDonald had moved to an office in the basement of the parliament, amid calls for him to quit as an MSP altogether.

And so the summer recess was probably welcomed all round.

Looking forward, the SNP continues to face serious questions on its independence plans, particularly following outrage from its own members over suggestions there will be no discussion of the Sustainable Growth Commission report – commissioned by the party but not necessarily representative of its policy – at its conference in October.

And while it is clear that navigating the debate will be key to the party’s fortunes – some consider the report to be a sober piece of economic analysis, others a blueprint for austerity – the Scottish Tories, too, will face challenges, not least the fact that the party will need to manage without its leader while Ruth Davidson goes off on maternity leave.

Announcing the news, the Scottish Conservative leader said she and her partner were “excited” while confirming she would take time off for maternity leave, like “thousands of working women do every year”.

Her deputy, Jackson Carlaw, is likely to find himself busy in the meantime, particularly after Nicola Sturgeon confirmed she would provide an update on plans for a second independence referendum in the autumn.

And clearly Brexit has complicated things for the FM and her team.

While any second independence vote will take place in totally different circumstances to 2014 – the Brexit dynamic is just one change – with polling suggesting support has remained static in the four years since 55 per cent of Scots voted No, the leadership will remain reluctant to risk a repeat.

Whether the party’s members will accept that remains unclear. But whatever happens, UK politics doesn’t look like calming down any time soon.

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