The political calendar of 2019 will be dominated by one event: Brexit. The way forward remains unclear with a beleaguered Theresa May set to have another attempt at persuading the Commons to back her proposed deal when Parliament returns next week. The debate among MPs will resume on Monday with a crunch vote to be held on 14 January. But the prospect of the Prime Minister’s deal being passed by MPs remains bleak. If the vote is rejected by the Commons, it opens up a range of potential scenarios.
Mrs May could go back to European leaders and seek further concessions, but this appears unlikely after the limited movement she received from Brussels in talks in December immediately after she postponed initial plans for a meaningful Commons vote. The “nightmare” scenario for many would be that Britain exits the EU without a deal. This would thwart the prospect of a two-year transition period after the UK’s departure from the EU. Business and industry leaders have warned this would have a disastrous impact on the economy as costly tariffs are imposed on exports to the EU. There are also fears of potential hold-ups to important commodities, such as food and drugs, coming into the country through ports, as more rigorous customs checks are imposed. Although a majority of MPs oppose such a scenario, the current paralysis at Westminster means the country may inadvertently end up in this situation if no other agreement can be reached.
Labour has also laid a vote of no confidence in Mrs May, with other political parties laying one in the government. If the latter is passed, it would usually mean the government falls. This could lead to a general election which is Labour’s preferred outcome. The party says if it seizes power, it would seek to negotiate a deal that keeps the UK in the EU single market and customs union, in a Norway-style arrangement. This appears unlikely, though, with EU leaders having made it clear that the current deal is not open to renegotiation and time is running out. A second EU referendum could also be a possibility with Labour also open to this scenario, along with the SNP and Liberal Democrats. A significant number of “remainer” Tory MPs may also be supportive. And despite the tight timescales, EU leaders are more likely to be disposed to “freezing” the Article 50 withdrawal process if there was the prospect of the UK choosing to change its mind and remain with the bloc.
If Mrs May’s deal is agreed, on the other hand, the government would then put forward the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill which will pass into law some of Brexit’s biggest issues, such as the agreement on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the details of the transition. Before any Brexit deal can be approved it must be approved by a full vote in the European Parliament which could also see any dubious aspects of the withdrawal treaty referred to European Court of Justice.
Brexit Day itself is scheduled to fall on 29 March and will end the UK’s formal membership of the European Union severing a link which stretches back to the country’s entry to the then EEC back in 1973. The deal struck by Mrs May with EU leaders means that a 21-month “transition” period now takes effect. The UK will continue to abide by EU rules and regulations and enjoy full single market access, as well as freedom of movement across EU borders, meaning that disruption is likely to keep to a minimum during this period. However, the UK will no longer have a vote on EU laws and regulations. Fully-fledged trade talks can now begin between the UK and the EU. While Britain remained a member state, such talks were not permitted under EU law.
Nicola Sturgeon is also expected to set out her plans on the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum early in the new year as the final Brexit departure terms become clearer. The First Minister has already made it clear she intends to hold a another vote on leaving the UK to give Scots an alternative to Brexit. With many in the Nationalist movement growing increasingly restless on the issue, Ms Sturgeon will come under growing pressure to unveil her plans. The situation could come to a head when SNP delegates gather in Aberdeen for the party’s spring conference in May.
It seems likely that the First Minister will seek a Section 30 order requesting authority is transferred from Westminster to hold a referendum, but this looks likely to be refused by the UK government which has control over the constitution. An illegal “Catalonia-style” vote has been ruled out by Ms Sturgeon. The growing suggestion is that a referendum could then be made the central issue of the 2021 Holyrood elections. Whether this would appease the SNP grassroots is another matter.
Allegations surrounding former first minister Alex Salmond will return to the spotlight this month. Salmond has launched a judicial review against the Scottish Government over the way it handled two harassment complaints made by female civil servants, relating to his time as first minister. The case is due to be heard at the Court of Session but it will not deliberate on the allegations themselves. It will instead focus on a new complaints process, introduced by the Scottish Government following the rise of the global #MeToo movement.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson will make a return to the political frontline in spring after maternity leave following the birth of her first child, Finn in October. Her deputy, Jackson Carlaw, has been holding the fort in the main opposition slot during the weekly First Minister’s Questions joust.
A key milestone in the Scottish political calendar will also come about when the 20th anniversary of devolution is celebrated in May. A series of events are being lined up at Holyrood to mark the occasion, with Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh expected to co-ordinate a number of cross party and civic initiatives.
The long-touted prospect of the council tax being axed in Scotland could move a step closer to reality this year. Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has indicated that he is ready to do a deal with the Greens on the issue in order to get his budget passed at Holyrood in March. Patrick Harvie’s party is the only one in Parliament currently taking part in budget talks with the SNP but have made it clear that a commitment to the reform of local government taxation is needed before any deal is struck. Abolition of the council tax was a flagship policy of the SNP a decade ago, but it was watered down and a previous review of the system barely tinkered at the edges.
Scotland is also expected to become the first part of the UK to back a formal ban on the smacking of children with MSPs expected to agree legislation proposed by Green MSP John Finnie. It is likely to provoke another row with campaigners who see the laws as state intrusion into family life, following recent controversies over issues like the introduction of a “named person” for every youngster in Scotland. Smacking is currently allowed through the provision of a “justifiable assault” defence in Scots law. The changes being proposed would see this defence removed from the statute book.
The prospect of a repeat of the teacher strikes which shut down classrooms across the country in the 1980s looks increasing likely in the year ahead as a stand-off over pay becomes increasingly polarised. The EIS teaching union is demanding a 10 per cent hike in wages to cover real terms cuts suffered by the profession during the climate of austerity. This has been branded “unaffordable” by Nicola Sturgeon.
Unions have already rejected a 3 per cent offer from the employers which also includes councils. The brinkmanship is likely to continue into the new year, but there have already been grim warnings that action could target the constituencies of senior SNP Cabinet members including Education Secretary John Swinney and Ms Sturgeon herself.
Glasgow becomes the first part of Scotland to introduce a “low emission zone” banning some types of vehicles from entering the heart of the city centre. The city has some of the poorest air quality in the UK and it is hoped the measure, introduced at a minute to midnight on Hogmanay, will go some way to addressing this. The new zone will take effect in stages, so 2019 will see one-fifth of the older, worst polluting buses banned. They will eventually be banned completely by 2022. But there has been criticism of the scheme from campaigners who say there is no timetable in place to limit pollution from cars, vans and lorries.
Scots will also see an overhaul of the system of organ donation with a shift towards a system of “presumed consent” likely to be pushed through later this year. Legislation to shift to an “opt-out” system is currently going through Parliament and will mark a departure from the current regime which means people must “opt in” before organs can be removed.
Medics will still check with families to confirm the deceased person’s views, and ensure they understand the process. But there have been concerns raised about the prospect of a clash if the deceased person’s relatives object to organs being taken even where there was no proactive “opt-out”.