Nicola Sturgeon has warned the Brexit trajectory of a Boris Johnson government is “fraught with risk” and could still result in the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal.
The First Minister told MSPs yesterday that the suggestion a new trade deal could be struck with the EU within three years was unrealistic “given the complexities and experience of the withdrawal negotiations”.
Quizzed by the conveners of Holyrood’s committees, Ms Sturgeon was asked about the prospect of Mr Johnson agreeing a new trading relationship with the EU by the end of 2020 – or within a further two-year extension timescale – if he wins the general election.
She said: “I don’t think the timetable is realistic at all. It’s probably as close to impossible as you can get to say a trade deal could be agreed in that timeframe. There’s no precedent for that and anyone saying that is possible is not being straight.
“It’s entirely possible we will find ourselves by the middle of next year looking straight down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit again, which is a very real prospect and fills me with horror.
“If you look at trade negotiations between the EU and other countries, the idea that three years is an achievable aim really beggars belief. The path the current UK government wants us to go down is fraught with risk and danger and guarantees years more wrangling.”
Ms Sturgeon’s comments came as former Tory minister David Gauke, who is standing as an independent candidate in the election, warned that a Conservative majority will result in a “disastrous” no-deal Brexit.
The former justice secretary suggested Tory supporters opposed to no-deal should consider “lending” their votes to the Liberal Democrats on 12 December. He said he feared if Mr Johnson was returned with an overall majority, it would lead to Britain leaving the EU at the end of 2020 on World Trade Organisation terms.
Ms Sturgeon also told MSPs that a no-deal would impose export tariffs on Scottish beef of 65 per cent and 46 per cent on sheep meat, which wold be “devastating” for the industry.
“These are real impacts and while the immediate prospect of a no-deal Brexit has receded, it’s not moved very far down the track,” she said. “Assuming the current UK government track is the one we’re still on [after the election], the implications of a no-deal Brexit are right back there very quickly.”
Asked about concerns that a no-deal Brexit could lead to a rise in organised crime and smuggling, particularly in the Stranraer area, she added: “It is definitely a risk with points of access from Northern Ireland. I and the Justice Secretary have had discussions with Police Scotland about it, though I won’t go into detail about what the police would seek to do to mitigate that risk.
“But these are issues which have been under close and regular discussion and, if this comes back as a prospect, will be again. While we’ve effectively paused no-deal planning at the moment, all these plans are still there and they will be quickly reactivated if at any stage we head in that direction.”
Ms Sturgeon also told MSPs the Scottish Government was struggling to plan for next year’s budget in light of the UK budget being cancelled “in a fit of pique”.
She said the situation was “horrendous” and it was impossible to “convey the degree of intense frustration we feel”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Not being able to get on with the work of setting a budget has implications, not just for government spending and the economy, but for health boards and local authorities. To be blunt, we don’t know how much money there’s going to be in the Scottish budget next year. We just have an inability to have a meaningful budget process.
“We’re getting on with doing the preparation, looking at our budget, making assumptions about what might be the case and trying to plan as much as possible, but we’re doing that completely in the dark at the moment.
“It’s a horrendous situation to be put into. If we had an alternative date that would be one thing, but we have no idea when a new UK government is likely to produce a budget, and meanwhile the clock is ticking.
“We can’t give definitive answers to what exactly we will do in all the scenarios which could unfold, but we will keep local authorities and health boards and others as up to date as we can in what are quite unprecedented circumstances.”