IT’S easy to be blindsided by events in politics. The best-laid schemes for the average week at Westminster are normally in tatters by Monday lunchtime.
But amid the hurly-burly, I’ve watched the slow-motion car crash of the Tories’ failure to tackle the challenge to devolution posed by Brexit with a mixture of frustration and anger. Now that abject failure has been called out in a report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Every warning ignored. Every amendment opposed. Every golden opportunity to fix the problem squandered. Many of the consequences of a Leave vote have been surprising. The potential for conflict with the devolution settlement is not. The fault lines were there but Brexit, the transfer of further powers to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and the English metro mayors, coupled with the inflexibility of our constitution has turned them into dangerous cracks.
The game has changed. That’s why at every stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill we have tried to strengthen the role of the Joint Ministerial Committee and enshrine those intergovernmental relationships in legislation. We called for regular reports to Parliament and for minutes to be published in the interest of transparency. Instead, we got David Mundell, the invisible man in Cabinet. A figure who has made himself so superfluous to requirements that he is not considered worthy of a seat at the inner Brexit Cabinet table. For a Scottish Secretary from a party which claims to be a defender of the union, that is playing fast and loose with it.
Instead of closing down the potential routes for grievance by establishing a formal role for the devolved governments, he has turned inaction into an artform, all the time sleepwalking into a position which has the nationalists rubbing their hands with glee at the mischief they can make from it. If Scotland’s two governments put cause before country every time, then we must put formal structures in place to ensure co-operation and guarantee respect for the settled will of the people. Make no mistake. I take no pleasure in having been proved right.
Just as John Smith warned more than a quarter of a century ago, there are two parties sawing away at the legs that support the union. There is no hiding place for David Mundell when this damning verdict comes from a cross-party committee chaired by a Conservative MP.
For all her posturing about standing up for Scotland at Westminister, Ruth Davidson’s Tory MPs have been consistently outvoted, outmanoeuvred, and over-ruled, lobby fodder a significant way down the pecking order from the DUP members propping up Theresa May for the princely sum of £1 billion. Yet for all their compliance, what has Ruth’s London battalion achieved? No bucks and precious little bang.
So where next? Only the narrow separatist agenda of the SNP is being served by this impasse. It is a blank canvas onto which they project every gripe. Amid the arguments about Brexit, such simplistic messaging holds dangerously broad appeal. Yet we have an emasculated Scotland Office, with no permanent staff, failing to grasp the thistle. That is why a Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to advise on reforming the way post-Brexit Britain works and if the current arrangement is serving the people well enough by ensuring there is an adequate redistribution of power as well as wealth.
Even if the Tories cannot bring themselves to admit we got it right, a starting point would be to get to work on delivering the recommendations in this report – but I won’t hold my breath.
Lesley Laird MP is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland