Westminster’s reply to the SNP’s case for remaining in the single market was taken seriously after all. So why did May allow Sturgeon to claim she’d been ignored?

Here’s a strange thing. There we were, led to believe  that Theresa May had dismissed almost with  contempt Nicola Sturgeon’s  carefully  considered case for the UK, or at least Scotland,  to remain within the single market. It turns out it wasn’t like that at all. We know that because the Scottish Government itself has just published a reply to the SNP’s paper Scotland’s Place in Europe, from the Brexit Secretary David Davis in a letter dated 29 March. It lists the meetings held to discuss it and the work done to evaluate it and explains why the SNPs’ position was rejected.

Davis observes:

I am disappointed that the Scottish Government has called for another referendum on independence before we were able to discuss the outcomes of this joint work, that was entered into in good faith.

So why did May, or Davis, fail to answer the charge from Sturgeon directly on the record,  that the Scottish government’s case hadn’t been seriously considered? They could have made more of it although the gist was known through the political lobby.  Not only that, but the SNP minister Mike Russell is publishing  Davis’s reply contrary to  the UK government’s wishes he says, because the UK’s Scotland Secretary David Mundell had  “completely misrepresented the Scottish government’s position about its release in the Commons.”.   Mundell claimed that the Scottish government had asked for it not to be released, something a spokesman for  Russell denied.

The little spat prompts the question, what did the Conservatives have to hide when  the letter reveals that they took the SNP’s case more seriously than they allowed commentators to believe? The clue may lie in the timing.  May had just met Sturgeon in Edinburgh to emphasise that “now is not the time” for  Indyref 2, on the day before  it was known that Davis was about to reject the SNP’s Brexit position. May might have wanted to deny Sturgeon the fresh ammunition of May’s outright  rejection of  the SNP case.   The Conservatives will be sure to make more of it as May campaigns in Scotland on  a modestly rising tide of Tory support.

Davis’s  bullishness about the UK government’s ambitions for Brexit contrasts with the fears of a hard Brexit voiced  by Blairites, the Lib Dems, the SNP and most Irish north and south except  the DUP.

Extracts from Davis Davis’s letter.

The intergovernmental engagement that has taken place within the UK between the four governments since the referendum result has been unprecedented. The Prime Minister has chaired two plenary meetings of the JMC, and we have met four times in the JMC(EU Negotiations). Underpinning these has been a significant amount of bilateral engagement at Ministerial level, alongside official level working. As you have acknowledged, this engagement has intensified over the past two months, specifically in response to the Scottish Government proposals.

The Scottish Government and the UK Government agree that achieving the freest and most frictionless trade with the EU, and maintaining the deeply integrated trade and economic relationship with the EU, is in both Scotland’s and the UK’s interests.

We are aiming to agree a bold and ambitious free trade deal with the EU that is more ambitious than any other trade deal agreed to date.

The Scottish Government and the UK Government agree that we will always want immigration, especially high-skilled immigration, from EU countries. Our Governments agree that workers’ rights cannot be eroded as we leave the EU.

Let me turn to your paper on Scotland’s Place in Europe.

As I have already set out, we share many of the same objectives. However, there are clear barriers to making your proposals a reality. Scotland’s accession to EFTA, and then the EEA, would not be deliverable and, importantly, would require the consent of all EFTA and EU member states. Any divergence between EU and UK law – as a result, perhaps, of new EU regulation – could lead to the creation of new barriers to trade within our Union, which could take the form of additional controls and checks on trade within the United Kingdom. Given that trade with the rest of the UK is worth four times trade with the EU, I do not believe that such significant disruption to the internal UK market is in Scotland’s – or the UK’s – best interests. And Scotland’s businesses could face a confusing mix of regulatory regimes.

We will achieve a better deal for all if we are united in our approach – and from our wider engagements I believe this is what the Scottish people want too.

As powers are repatriated from the EU, we must work together to ensure that stability and certainty are not compromised, and that the effective functioning of the UK single market is maintained. There will be areas where common frameworks may be required, for example where they are necessary to protect the freedom of businesses, including businesses in Scotland, to operate across the UK single market and to enable the UK to strike free trade deals. Our guiding principle will be to ensure that no new barriers to living and doing business within our own Union are created as we leave the EU. You will know that the process must be a considered one and cannot be done without intensive discussions with the devolved administrations about where common frameworks will need to be retained in the future.

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