Why have tensions between Brexiteers and Whitehall reached fever pitch in the past couple of weeks? And why is optimism of a deal between the UK and Scottish Governments on post-Brexit powers draining away? The answer involves fish canneries in Newfoundland, a few thousand Scottish sheep, and two lorry parks outside of Dover, Kent.
By around October, Westminster and the European Parliament will need something to vote on – an outline of a deal that goes beyond “Brexit means Brexit”.
With that deadline looming, as Tory MPs and cabinet ministers have been arguing about exactly what that deal should be, in Whitehall, civil servants have been getting on with the revolutionary act of actually preparing for Brexit.
You may have noticed it’s got them into a bit of trouble.
Faced with its own economic analysis showing there is no good Brexit scenario for the economy, the government stuck by its claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
On the ground, however, the facts betray that ministers are increasingly unwilling or unable to carry out that threat.
For instance, one crucial piece of legislation to get the nuts and bolts of Brexit in place, the rather unglamorous Road Haulage Bill, has been delayed.
It’s caught in a jam because civil servants believe a no-deal scenario for the UK’s 75,000 road hauliers means less than 2,000 permits to operate in the EU being issued – a disaster that could clear supermarket shelves and empty petrol pumps.
Hauliers face another problem: the government has yet to provide anywhere to park while waiting for the inevitable customs checks under its preferred Brexit scenario to be carried out.
Last week it emerged that the government has quietly spent £5.7 million renting an airfield 20 miles from Dover as an emergency lorry park.
No sooner had news of the Brexit Area 51 emerged than the road haulage industry dismissed the site as “completely unsuitable”. Meanwhile, the only other viable option vanished like a Brexit Brigadoon in November after £15 million was spent on design work because no environmental impact assessment was carried out.
As the facts accumulate, signals from Downing Street have increasingly pointed towards a more open-ended transition phase where little, if anything changes. So too, has the frustration from Brexiteers grown.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s relationship with Edinburgh isn’t any better than with its own backbenchers.
With both sides initially seeking to be constructive, it seemed an agreement could be reached by Christmas on how to manage new powers in devolved areas returning from Brussels in a way that respects devolution and prevents any internal barriers to trade.
With that goal long behind us, and as more time passes, it is increasingly difficult to see how a deal can be reached at all.
Separating the two sides is a key point of principle – are the 111 powers Holyrood’s to share or Westminster’s?
The fundamental difference on how to interpret constitutional sovereignty makes it hard to find the concessions needed to reach a compromise. For a government so protective of its negotiating position in Brussels, UK ministers have deployed a questionable strategy with the SNP, not so much showing their hand as giving away their cards.
By saying there won’t be an EU Withdrawal Bill without legislative consent from Holyrood, they’ve empowered the Scottish Government to stick to its demands. While they won’t say as much, preferring to campaign for the UK to stay in the single market, Scottish ministers will also know they have a lot at stake without much incentive to do a deal.
As The Scotsman reported yesterday, when it does come to striking trade deals after Brexit, Scotland will have a strong case to be part of those negotiations if it hangs on to the necessary levers, just like Canadian provinces were during negotiation of the CETA trade agreement with the EU.
David Martin, the Scottish Labour MEP with a long track record of scrutinising EU trade deals, says Holyrood would have the power to make life “awkward” for UK trade negotiators when implementing deals that touch on devolved responsibilities. How? An example is playing out in right now in Canada. As in parts of Scotland, fishing is a lifeline industry for many isolated communities in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A ban on exports of unprocessed fish has sought to retain valuable canning and processing work, which adds value and provides much-needed jobs in the province with the highest unemployment rate in Canada.
But CETA renders the ban anti-competitive, and during negotiations the Newfoundland government believed it had secured a commitment from the federal government to create a $400 million fund to support the fishing industry and help it compete with processors across Canada and the EU.
Fast forward to the present day, and it turns out that investment fund is being opened to all of Atlantic Canada, and politicians in Newfoundland are not impressed. How they might retaliate isn’t yet clear, but they could take their chance in court and make life difficult for exporters who don’t land their catches at local ports first. Coincidentally, yesterday the Scottish Government refused to share agriculture powers with the UK if a ban on exports of live sheep is pushed through.
Despite threats that the “Three Brexiteers” could mount an imminent raid on Downing Street, it has always seemed more likely that when Theresa May looks set to return from Brussels with a substandard deal, one of the trio rides to the rescue to deliver the hard Brexit they want.
A breakdown between Edinburgh and London could come much sooner. It is around six weeks until amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill are voted on in the House of Lords.
UK Government sources don’t have a ready answer when asked what plan B is. Whatever the outcome, it will be a defining moment for devolution. In both cases, the clues are in the details.