Brian Monteith: When May speaks expect a Pavlovian response from Sturgeon

In a heavily trailed speech that will be delivered on Tuesday the Prime Minister is expected to declare her hand against either a hard or soft Brexit, and instead lay out her ambitions for what I described in this column last October as a 'clean Brexit'.

Prime Minister Theresa May answers questions during the weekly Prime Minister Questions session in the House of Commons. Picture; Getty
Prime Minister Theresa May answers questions during the weekly Prime Minister Questions session in the House of Commons. Picture; Getty

The clarity of the government’s strategic direction should be welcomed whatever one thinks of the merits for or against the UK leaving the EU (which all but the most obstinate and deluded will not recognise has been decided anyway). More so, it should be also welcomed by those disposed to argue about what the UK’s relationship with the EU should be and what was actually meant by Theresa May when she said “Brexit means Brexit”.

For the sharpening of focus by the government must mean that politicians, businesses, investors and any others with a direct interest will have to address the realities rather than the ambiguities of the government’s Brexit preparations.

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For those of us who have taken the trouble to note what Theresa May has been saying since she became Prime Minister this should come as no surprise. For while she has been careful not to show any details of her negotiating position she has repeatedly implied a number of goals which, were she to go back on them now, would leave her open to highly damaging charges of betrayal and imperil her leadership of her party and therefore her government.

And so these goals will now be made more explicit. Firstly, that obtaining full control of immigration policy is non-negotiable and leaving the EU’s Internal Market is a price she believes the British public will be willing to pay.

This position will be the most combustible for there is much nonsense talked about the need for the UK to be “inside” to maintain access, when in fact every country has access (such as the US, Japan and China, who trade more than us with the EU but are “outside”). It is the cost of access to the Internal Market and who bears it that is the real issue.

I write “Internal Market” intentionally, for not only is that its proper name, used by EU institutions themselves, but a more valid description, for there is no comprehensive EU Single Market. There is certainly no Single Market in financial services, and the prospects of there being one recedes week by week; but neither is there one in manufacturing, as many businesses that I have met in the last two years have taken great trouble to explain to me. It is a chimera, a political construct of politicians who mostly know little about business, but wish to describe something of value they have created, only to run away from dealing with the genuine failings that are raised with them.

Being outside but having the best possible access to the Internal Market leads directly to the other goal, that the UK should leave the EU’s Custom’s Union. This objective should be easier to establish consensus around for if the UK is outside the Internal Market, then it must ensure it has the freedom of being outside the Custom’s Union to be able to strike the trade deals it will require to make a success of full sovereignty. Being inside the Customs Union would shut the door on those offers of free trade agreements already piling in from the likes of the United States, New Zealand, Australia and dozens of others.

The third and least controversial goal is for the UK to ensure it is outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (based in Luxembourg), a position that should not be confused with the UK’s relationships with other EU judicial institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights (based in Strasbourg). Wishing to be beyond the reaches of the ECJ is yet another signal that the Internal Market has been ruled as dispensable for it is impossible to be “inside” the EU institution, or negotiate an associate membership such as Norway has, and then not be subject to the rulings of the ECJ. One comes with the other. The ECJ has the power to rule over the interpretation of EU laws and regulations and if you are not a full member of the club you have no votes on how to make such laws.

There will of course be outrage from those who, like old generals, wish to fight old battles. Nick Clegg, Tony Blair, Richard Branson and others will all sound off; but their arguments did not rally enough troops before and shall not now. Confusion abounds in Jeremy Corbyn’s approach. His Brexit dispatches have been lost in the fog of war, and now contradict what he said a few months ago. His continually changing position delivers the friendly fire of growing resignations and talk of mutiny.

No, the only person with any real skin in the game and who shall undoubtedly have a great deal to say, ironically because she has no care about what is best for the United Kingdom, is Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

On every occasion that May pronounces on Brexit we can expect a Pavlovian response from Sturgeon. What May says is best for us Sturgeon will say is worst for us and in the end something has got to give. They cannot both be right.

The coming denouement then, must be on the importance to Scotland of the European Union’s Internal Market over the British Union’s Internal Market. The European Union’s market is not complete, does not cover service industries - the most important economic sector for Scotland - would prevent free trade agreements for Scotland with vital markets such as the US, China or Japan, gives Scotland no influence over its immigration policies and will place us under the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

The British Union’s market has been complete for centuries, making the success of our service industries possible, would allow us lucrative trade agreements that we can prosper from, provide tailor-made control over immigration so that in future we can select the people with skills required and strengthen the authority of our own courts.

It is not propitious ground for Sturgeon to fight on; if she chooses to force a battle she will be putting her party’s hopes before the country’s interests with glorious defeat the most likely prospect.