Scottish Tories’ independence fears make PM’s Brexit trickier

by Nick Kent | 15.10.2018

Amidst the claims and counter-claims about the breakdown of the Brexit talks yesterday, one thing has been missed: it was the intervention of the Scottish Tories that was key to May backing off from the proposed deal.

No. 10 thought they had the outlines of a deal with the EU yesterday but it collapsed over the EU’s position that if the proposed temporary customs union with the EU was not implemented or ended without an alternative trading relationship in place, the previously agreed Irish backstop would come into force.  

May’s plan for a temporary customs union was already unpopular with Brexiters, several of whom had been threatening to resign from the cabinet.  In truth, May could have ridden out the resignations of Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey – after all, she survived the departures of Boris Johnson and David Davis.  But once the Scottish secretary David Mundell and, more importantly, the Tories’ leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, said they could not back the PM’s plan, it was stillborn.

The Scottish Tory problem with the Irish backstop is that it would create a precedent for one part of the UK to have a unique relationship with the EU.  This would be red meat to Scottish nationalists, Tories argue, because the SNP would argue that a Remain-voting Scotland should have the same rights.

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It is this prospect that worries Davidson and Mundell. “We could not support any deal that creates a border of any kind in the Irish Sea and undermines the Union or leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists,” they wrote in their letter to May.

This is the same point made by the DUP, the party propping up the government in the Commons.  Without both the 10 DUP MPs and the 13 Scottish Tory MPs, May would have little chance of getting her deal through Parliament.  But her problem is bigger than that. May has made keeping the Union together a Brexit red line and the political damage to her from Davidson, one of the few popular figures in today’s Conservative Party, condemning the deal would be hard for May to survive.  

May’s Scottish headache could get worse if significant numbers of English Tory MPs adopt the Unionist position, as Hugo Swire did yesterday.

But Davidson and the Scottish Tories have a problem of their own.  Davidson opposes a People’s Vote because a second referendum on Brexit would open the door (in her view) to another one on Scottish independence.  The trouble is that Brexit makes a new referendum on Scotland’s future in the Union near inevitable. At present Davidson has no way out of this cul-de-sac and Brexiter plans for a Canada-style free trade agreement would be worse for Scotland.   

Scottish Tories want May to come up with a workable deal because for them the threat of Scottish independence trumps Brexit as an issue.  If that doesn’t happen some of their MPs might join forces with other Tories calling for the UK to stay in the European Economic Area.  While that would help to keep the border in Ireland open without giving Northern Ireland special privileges over Scotland, it would also mean the UK being bound by EU regulations without any say over them.  

For Scotland and for Northern Ireland, the best way out of the current crisis is for the UK to stay in the EU, and only a People’s Vote is going to make that possible.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Scottish Tories’ independence fears make PM’s Brexit trickier”

  • EFTA does have consultation rights on drafting EU legislation – http://www.efta.int/eea/decision-shaping

    It’s not really “vassal status” as portrayed by some, and that’s without EFTA containing the 3rd largest economy in Europe, which would give it considerably more heft.

    Not as influential as being inside, of course, but the Brexit referendum has eroded much of the UK’s soft power, and there will be a long haul to recover our former influence if we decide to remain after all.

  • 50% of Scots, according to the most recent polling, already believe Independence is a better way irrespective of what happens in March 2019 (and 52% say right now they will vote yes to indy if there is a hard Brexit) . Scotland sits on a knife edge and, with the young almost 75% in favour of Independence, it won’t be long before simple demographics kill off the Union. The fact Labour under Corbyn condone Brexit, and cannot trounce the worst government in living memory in the polls, means Scots face potentially another decade or more of Tory rule and a crashed economy. So whilst the young look to the hope and potential of an independent Scotland in EU and a Nordic alliance, the older, (small c) conservative Scots, who voted No to indy last time, also remember Thatcher and what she did to Scotland in the 80s. They won’t inflict that on their grandchildren. I support a People’s Vote only because I don’t want to see any part of the UK crash and burn, but I really can’t see the Vote happening as there doesn’t seem to be parliamentary will from Labour. Scotland, whatever happens, is likely to be gone within 5-10 years, and the irony is, it will entirely be down to the actions of the Conservative & Unionist Party. Mundell is hopelessly inept and Ruth Davidson’s position on Brexit has seen more flip-flops than Bondi Beach.