Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has warned that special Brexit terms for Northern Ireland “could have unravelled the entire United Kingdom”.
The UK government backtracked on its strategy of earlier in the week when Brexit Secretary David Davis told the House of Commons yesterday that any “regulatory alignment” in order to prevent a hard border in Ireland would apply to the whole of the UK, in a bid to ease concerns from the DUP and Scottish Conservatives about a separate deal in Ireland undermining the Union. Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to abandon carefully choreographed plans to sign off on the first stage of Brexit talks on Monday after DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected a planned text committing Northern Ireland to match regulations in the Republic across a number of areas.
A leak of the draft agreement prompted calls from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for Scotland to be allowed to remain in the European single market and customs union, a demand echoed by the Welsh First Minister and London mayor.
Writing in The Scotsman today, Ms Davidson says: “A markedly separate deal for Northern Ireland – perhaps with membership of the single market – could have unravelled the entire United Kingdom; indeed, the alacrity with which Nicola Sturgeon spotted a political opportunity on Tuesday only served to demonstrate as much.
“That is why I made clear to the Prime Minister yesterday that neither I nor the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs at Westminster could support such an arrangement. It was why I was pleased to see David Davis and fellow UK ministers reiterate this was not what was going to happen.”
It emerged that Ms Davidson spoke to the Prime Minister and the DUP leader yesterday as the government scrambled to put together a new compromise to unlock trade talks between the UK and the EU.
However, a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon dismissed the Scottish Conservative leader’s intervention, saying Ms Davidson had “close to zero credibility” on Brexit.
The First Minister’s spokesman said of Ms Davidson: “She flip-flops on this issue constantly and has done since before the EU referendum.
“She’s held every position under the sun on this. So her comments today should be taken in that context.
“And I’m not even sure what her comments mean. Maybe they’re designed deliberately to be woolly and ambiguous.
“If she’s got something to say, she should say it unambiguously and clearly. Does she believe Scotland should remain in the single market – yes or no? And stop playing silly games.”
Last night Ms Foster said the draft text, which the EU and Ireland said had already been agreed by the Prime Minister, came as a “big shock” and would have “allowed a border in the Irish Sea” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds revealed the party was not shown the draft text of the proposed agreement on the Irish border until the “late morning” on Monday, shortly before Mrs May was expected to sign off on it in a lunchtime meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
He said they immediately informed the government that it was “clearly unacceptable”.
But addressing MPs, Mr Davis said any suggestion that the draft agreement would have meant Northern Ireland staying in the single market was a “falsehood”.
“That is, emphatically, not something the government is considering,” Mr Davis said.
“So when the First Minister of Wales complains about it, or the First Minister of Scotland says it’s a reason to start banging the tattered drum of independence, or the mayor of London says it justifies a hard border round the M25, I say they are making a foolish mistake. No UK government would allow such a thing, let alone a Conservative and Unionist one.”
Mrs May was expected to speak to Ms Foster and Sinn Fein Michelle O’Neill last night, and is due to visit Brussels again later this week to try to finalise a divorce deal which would allow leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to give the green light to trade talks next week.
But Downing Street suggested that negotiations could go right up to the wire at the leaders’ summit in the Belgian capital on 14 December.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said that “the ball is now in London’s court” after the previous attempt to clear the deadlock in Brexit talks collapsed into disarray.
The Taoiseach told Irish MPs that the draft text included the commitment to “regulatory alignment” as a ‘backstop’ in case the UK fails to agree a comprehensive trade deal in the next stage of negotiations with Brussels.
Mr Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney, said Dublin was ready to work with the UK on “presentational issues”, but insisted it would not budge on the issues, saying: “We don’t want to give the impression that the Irish government is going to reverse away from the deal we felt we had in place and agreed yesterday.”
The government could face further opposition to its latest stance on the Irish border from its own Brexit-supporting MPs over suggestions that EU regulations will continue to apply after the UK leaves.
In the Commons, Mr Davis sidestepped a demand from prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to make it an “indelible red line” that the UK should be able to diverge from EU rules and regulations after withdrawal, telling him only: “The red line for me is delivering the best Brexit for Britain.”
The Brexit secretary stressed that “alignment” did not mean full harmonisation with EU regulations, telling MPs: “It’s sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection, all of that sort of thing as well – and that’s what we are aiming at.”
He added: “There are areas where we want the same outcome but by different regulatory methods.”