Theresa May’s key Brexit legislation has been rejected by the Scottish Parliament in an unprecedented vote that paves the way for a constitutional crisis.
Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell last night warned Mrs May to respect the will of Holyrood after the SNP, Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems united to vote against the EU Withdrawal Bill.
The vote takes the UK into uncharted constitutional territory, marking the first time that Holyrood has knocked back legislation that a UK government intends to press ahead with regardless.
But Mr Russell said UK ministers should not “drown out” Holyrood as the prospect of Mrs May’s administration defying the will of the Scottish Parliament moved a step closer.
The Conservatives countered by claiming the Scottish Government’s refusal to accept the bill was a “cover” for another push for Scottish independence.
MSPs voted by 93 to 30 for a Scottish Government motion rejecting the bill, with a Labour amendment calling on the Scottish and UK governments to convene cross party talks in an attempt to break the impasse.
Yesterday it emerged that UK Cabinet minister David Lidington had written to Scottish party leaders saying the UK government would consider any “practical variations” to the Bill.
The dispute centres on how EU powers in devolved areas such as agriculture and fishing are repatriated to the UK.
The UK government has said the vast majority of such powers should go straight to the devolved institutions apart from some in 24 policy areas where they want to develop “common frameworks” across the UK.
UK ministers propose that Westminster should temporarily have control over those 24 areas for a few years so that those frameworks can be developed.
That arrangement has been accepted by the Labour government in Wales, but is opposed by Labour at Holyrood and the SNP administration.
Scottish ministers claim that the UK government’s approach represents a “power grab” and maintain that devolved institutions should give explicit consent for changes to be made to the frameworks.
The UK government considers that unacceptable because it would give devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and potentially Northern Ireland a veto over UK-wide policy.
After the vote Mr Russell warned the UK government that it “must respect the will of the Parliament”.
He said: “The UK government cannot ignore the reality of devolution or try to drown out what this Parliament says. They cannot pretend that no motion has been passed.
“If after tonight’s vote the UK government move to force on this Parliament an arrangement for restricting devolution that does not have Parliament’s consent they will do so in the full knowledge that they are breaking the 20-year old devolution settlement and operating outwith the agreed constitution. Those are actions that will be noted here and across Europe.”
Mr Russell will now write to Mr Lidington, calling on him come to Scotland and “hear the concerns of all parties and to discuss with the Scottish Government and the UK government any new ideas from any of the parties”.
The UK government has the power to go against the will of Holyrood because the long-standing agreement that Westminster should not legislate in devolved areas without Holyrood consent is merely a political convention and is not enforcible by the courts.
The European Withdrawal Bill was supported by the Scottish Conservatives, but their amendment urging Holyrood to give consent to the legislation was rejected by a majority of MSPs.
Conservative constitution spokesman Professor Adam Tomkins claimed a new drive for Scottish independence was behind the SNP’s refusal to do a deal on post-Brexit powers. Meanwhile his colleague Jackson Carlaw claimed Labour and the Lib Dems were acting as “midwives” for a second independence referendum by supporting the Scottish Government.
Professor Tomkins said: “Scottish Labour’s position simply doesn’t make sense; in Wales, the Labour administration has today backed this deal yet, here in Scotland, Richard Leonard is content to do the SNP’s bidding.
“As for the Lib Dems, they admitted today that they weren’t even voting on the Brexit withdrawal deal, but because they don’t back the EU referendum result.
“It’s patently obvious that Nicola Sturgeon wants a political crisis to provide cover for her independence drive.
“We will stand up for anyone – Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem – who wants to see the SNP challenged and taken on.
“The SNP has taken the wrong path today. It’s deeply disappointing that the leaders of Labour and the Lib Dems have helped them do it.”
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Neil Findlay warned the Tories’ “shambolic” approach to Brexit could see the dispute end up in the Supreme Court. Mr Findlay said: “As the party that delivered devolution, Labour will always seek to defend and strengthen it – and that is why we could not vote to give consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill at this time. The Tories’ shambolic handling of this key area for Scotland is pushing the case towards the Supreme Court. The people of Scotland want this mess fixed and even after this vote there is still time to do that.
“It is welcome that both the UK and Scottish Governments have agreed to cross-party talks to resolve this deadlock and this must begin urgently.”
Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the UK government was “disappointed” with Holyrood’s decision but added there was still hope of agreement.