Well what do you know? At the beginning of a very busy news week, the Times leads with a real revelation from right under their noses. After months of patting the wee Celts on the head with bland assurances that Brexit will be fine all round, “sources “ now say that “concerns about Scotland and Northern Ireland were discussed at last week’s cabinet.. and the impact of Brexit on the UKs devolution settlement is the government’s greatest concern about the exit process.”
Today’s Times story may signal that the Westminster village is waking up to a far more serious development than the result of the 2020 Westminster election. Or as is the way of spin, it may only be designed to give a boost to the Conservatives in the Scottish council elections. The spin backs up an exclusive article by Mrs May in the Holyrood magazine, offering more assurances but nothing new, following a now familiar practice.
The ratcheting up of devolution issues comes after a week in which Theresa May has become queen of all she surveys as a result of Labour’s humiliation in two English by elections. She is firmly on track to trigger Article 50 on time next month, whatever the House of Lords decide. Her victory is trumpeted as a vindication of a Brexit strategy which so far has been based almost entirely on Conservative party management. Support for Remain which was the orthodoxy of the Cameron majority has now been reduced to a faint echo of the past, sounded by yesterday’s men Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine.
Most of the London media have reflected her triumph. Until the Times today, the problem of Scotland was represented if at all, in Westminster terms as a problem for Labour. Without Scotland Labour could not form a majority government; and if the by election results were repeated in much of England, Labour would face near wipeout there too. Nobody mentioned that it’s a problem for the Conservatives that despite faint stirrings in Scotland, they have become defined as the party of England, not Great Britain. True, England is 80% of the UK population but the majoritarian argument works no better for the authority of government as a whole than it does for the Brexit verdict.
Whatever Downing St’s protestations, Mrs May’s opening strategy after triggering Article 50 is incompatible with Scottish demands and fails to address deep concerns throughout Ireland. How will the UK government tackle either ? While the Assembly election gives them some excuse for silence, it can only boost fears that they’re floundering. So we’re aching to know – by March 3rd?
From The Times’ Red Box (£)
“We have two jobs to do,” a senior Whitehall source said a couple of weeks ago. “Deliver on the manifesto. And save the Union.”
The behind-the-scenes preoccupation with Scotland seemed at odds with the public impression that the prime minister had other things on her mind.
Theresa May made her first visit, less than 48 hours after becoming PM, to Edinburgh to look Nicola Sturgeon in the eye and make clear her determination to keep Scotland in the UK.
“I believe with all my heart in the United Kingdom – the precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
But that bond is being stretched to breaking point by Brexit. The SNP hoped that a vote to leave would lead to a surge in support for an independent Scotland, which would remain in the European Union.
Since last summer not a single poll has put nationalists ahead, the most recent giving “yes” 51 per cent and “no” 44.
However, events have been moving fast for Sturgeon, who has repeatedly set tests for a new referendum which have not been met: a Brexit result would be a material change in circumstances, demanding Scotland have a veto on the process, demanding the UK stay in the single market.
She urges Scots to use council elections in May to “send a clear message to the SNP that they do not want a second independence referendum” by voting Conservative.
The UK cabinet is on a war footing. At last week’s meeting almost the whole 90 minutes was taken up with a lengthy discussion about how to save the Union.
Each minister was told to find ways to make the case against Scottish independence in their own policy area. “Everyone around the table wants the Union to work and stay together,” No 10 said.
Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office minister, well-liked in Downing Street, is co-ordinating the fight.
From the News lead.
Senior government sources say there is serious concern that Nicola Sturgeon will use the start of the Brexit process to demand another vote on the future of the UK and that Whitehall is planning for that event.
The prime minister could reject the demand, but such a move would risk causing a constitutional crisis. If she agreed, ministers have been warned, she would risk the break-up of the United Kingdom on a “coin toss”.
Mrs May has also been told that she faces a double-headed “devolution crisis” next month, with Stormont elections on Friday unlikely to resolve Northern Ireland’s political turmoil. Concerns about Scotland and Northern Ireland were discussed last Tuesday by the cabinet.
The impact of Brexit on the UK’s devolution settlement is the government’s greatest concern about the exit process, senior figures said.
The prime minister has taken aim at the SNP’s claim that Scotland’s rejection of Brexit requires it to be given a second chance to vote to leave the UK. “In June last year, when the UK as a whole was asked if we should leave or remain in the European Union, every voter had an equal say and the collective answer was final,” Mrs May has written in Holyrood, a Scottish current affairs magazine.
She said that there was “considerable common ground” between Westminster and Holyrood over the shape of the Brexit deal. Both wanted the “freest possible trade in goods and services between the UK and the EU”.
Betraying fears over Ms Sturgeon’s plans, she called on voters to use the local government elections in May “to send a clear message to the SNP that they do not want a second independence referendum”.
The real concern, however, is that Ms Sturgeon will use next month’s formal triggering of Article 50 as the pretext to table a formal demand for a second vote, well before the May elections.
Opinion polls suggest that most Scots still oppose independence, but one senior minister said that the SNP leader had “painted herself into a corner” with her public statements over the consequences of the Brexit vote for independence. “Article 50 is her last hook — if she doesn’t do it then, she won’t really have another chance until the end of the negotiations.”
There is also a belief among some Unionists in Scotland that Ms Sturgeon wants to switch the focus to constitutional affairs to deflect from her government’s performance on domestic matters, given that her personal approval ratings have started to dip. The SNP’s spring conference on March 17, a date likely to be close to the Article 50 letter, is seen as a point of maximum danger.
Constitutionally the UK government could refuse to permit another binding referendum. Allowing one could lead to the break-up of the UK. “Do you really want to take the risk on a 50/50 coin toss?” a senior government source said.
Before the vote in September 2014, in which Scots backed the Union by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, the UK and Scottish governments hammered out the so-called Edinburgh Agreement, which described the process by which the referendum would take place. They agreed the wording of the question and the timing.
Sources have told The Times that Mrs May could agree a fresh vote but make holding it after Brexit a red line, knowing that it would leave an independent Scotland outside the EU initially. SNP insiders have suggested that they would wish a vote to take place in the autumn of 2018.
With the prospect of Northern Ireland coming under direct rule, the SNP demands threaten to undermine Mrs May as she seeks to present a united front to the EU.
A senior government source said that the danger of a “devolution crisis” was preoccupying Whitehall. “It is possible that we will have to face Nicola Sturgeon calling a second referendum, have to bring in direct rule in Northern Ireland and trigger Article 50 all at the same time,” the source said.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London