Brexit: Theresa May’s inflexibility is weakening the union – Anand Menon

A large majority of Scots are less than impressed by the Prime Minister, with 68 per cent believing she is doing badly or very badly (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)
A large majority of Scots are less than impressed by the Prime Minister, with 68 per cent believing she is doing badly or very badly (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)
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Theresa May’s inflexibility over her Brexit ‘red lines’ is widening the schism between Edinburgh and London, writes Professor Anand Menon.

Trust, or more precisely a lack of it, has been central to the Brexit process. Its absence soured debates over the rights of EU citizens. It also explains the bitterness over arguments about the Irish backstop. And it is an absence of trust that has shaped relations between London and Edinburgh since June 2016.

As Theresa May casts about for support for her Brexit deal, her latest appeal has been to the Scottish, Welsh and indeed Northern Irish parties in Westminster.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 21 January, she declared that while “it will always be for Her Majesty’s Government to negotiate for the whole of the UK, we are also committed to giving the devolved administrations an enhanced role in the next phase, respecting their competence and vital interests in these negotiations”.

On the surface, this was a sensible offer. What really matters in terms of the long-term future of the country is not the Withdrawal Agreement currently stuck in parliamentary gridlock, but the future UK-EU relationship. In offering this ‘enhanced’ role to the devolved administrations, the Prime Minister was trying to dilute their opposition to the former with the promise of consultation over the latter. However, as Professor Nicola McEwen noted, Scotland and Wales don’t even get a passing mention in the political declaration, despite it having massive implications for devolved policy areas.

Having proffered an olive branch, May then proceeded to snatch it away. After a meeting in Downing Street last week, the First Minister reported that the Prime Minister “was keener to rule out the things she wasn’t prepared to do – extend Article 50, contemplate a second EU referendum” than to discuss the red lines she had laid down unilaterally back in 2016.

Indeed, the UK Government’s only substantive offer was for Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford to attend new Cabinet sub-committee meetings on preparing for the UK’s exit from the EU. “Watch us implement policies we defined despite your objections” is hardly the most enticing proposition.

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So far, so predictable. This is typical May. It has been a striking — and, at least since she lost her majority in 2017, dysfunctional — aspect of her style that she is more comfortable ruling options out than opening them up. She has proved happy to make concessions on process as long as it is process heading in a direction she alone has determined.

Think back for a second. Immediately after moving into Downing Street, May made her first visit as Prime Minister to Scotland. She stressed her willingness to listen to options and declared her wish to see the Scottish Government “fully engaged in our discussion”. She then proceeded to lay down a series of red lines that directly contradicted the expressed preferences of the Scottish Government to stay in the single market and customs union.

The UK Government then published its EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which managed to unite Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon in describing it as a “naked power grab” by Westminster.

The Withdrawal Bill underlined not only the fragility of the devolution settlement, but also the willingness of London to tinker with it as it saw fit. Personally (and I fondly remember being booed at the SNP conference last October for saying it out loud) I suspect this was more an overwhelmed civil service trying to simplify the Brexit process rather than a deliberate attempt to sabotage devolution.

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Whatever the truth, the Withdrawal Bill involved the relocation of powers previously held in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh to London as “retained EU law”. The Scottish Parliament refused consent for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill and passed its own Continuity Bill, and the UK Government took the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court. The latter ruled before Christmas that the Bill was legitimate, but that placing requirements on UK ministers was not. Negotiations in court rooms, as opposed to smoke-filled rooms, is rarely a recipe for building trust.

Meanwhile, in December MSPs voted by 92 to 29 to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Whatever happens in Westminster, even if Theresa May can Houdini herself out of the current bind, this will not be a Brexit deal that has the consent of all parts of the UK.

As one might expect, the handling of Brexit by the Government in London has not endeared May to the Scottish public.

A large majority are less than impressed by the Prime Minister, with 68 per cent believing she is doing badly or very badly. By last October, a majority (61 per cent) also viewed her either unfavourably or very unfavourably. That’s not to say Nicola Sturgeon has had things all her own way either. Brexit and what many view as the shoddy treatment of the devolved settlement has not translated into increased support for independence. As researcher Ian Montagu has explained, this has remained remarkably stable, despite increasing irritation at the Government in Westminster. And the SNP faces a dilemma of their own: according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, around half of independence supporters are also Eurosceptic. Between 2015 and 2017, the SNP’s support among this group fell by 15 percentage points while remaining steady among Europhiles.

The creation of this schism in Sturgeon’s electoral coalition is a political problem for the SNP. Yet, May’s uncompromising style, and an inability to build up trust in the last two years, has deepened the schism between Westminster and Edinburgh.

The Prime Minister’s inability to build trust through compromise could well be the character flaw that trumps her unionist instincts.

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe (www.ukandeu.ac.uk) and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. He’s on Twitter @anandmenon1