Tom Peterkin: Scottish Tories dig in their heels on Brexit strategy

New Conservative report hammering Sturgeon's plan for separate deal sets out the battle-lines, writes Tom Peterkin

Ruth Davidsons opposition to Brexit is well known but the Scottish Conservative leader is looking to make the best of the situation. Picture: Neil Hanna
Ruth Davidsons opposition to Brexit is well known but the Scottish Conservative leader is looking to make the best of the situation. Picture: Neil Hanna

Michael Russell’s reaction to a new paper produced for the Scottish Conservatives on the post-Brexit economic landscape was typically withering.

“It’s hardly surprising that a Tory Commission including a heavy dose of Tory politicians backs the Tory government’s plan to drag Scotland out of Europe against its will,” said a spokesman for the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister.

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Mr Russell’s attempt to dismiss the “Scotland’s Trading Future” paper should also come as little surprise, given the purpose of the 23-page document was to dismantle Nicola Sturgeon’s vision of a special Brexit deal for Scotland.

The authors of Scotland’s Trading Future, commissioned by Ruth Davidson and published this week, did not mince their words.

“Our conclusion is that the pursuit of a different European single market access deal for Scotland, with different legal and market constraints from the rest of the UK, would result in the fracturing of the UK domestic market, with significant detriment to the Scottish economy,” they said.

Looking at Ms Sturgeon’s proposals for a separate Scottish deal with either the European Union or the European Economic Area, they warned a hard border between Scotland and England was “inevitable” unless the Scottish Government adopted the same immigration controls as the rest of the UK.

Furthermore, the flow of goods and services across an internal UK Border would “inevitably be affected” by more restrictive controls and there would be a gradual “divergence” between Scotland and the rest of the UK, as EU or EEA membership would require more regulations and laws to be adopted north of the Border.

Underlining these points was the message that UK exports are four times more valuable to Scottish firms as those to the EU.

Scottish Conservative strategists say this report will feed into UK government thinking, another sign that Theresa May is minded to reject Ms Sturgeon’s proposal – even though the official line is that the Prime Minister is still considering it.

The uncompromising approach outlined by the paper therefore sets out the battle lines between the UK and Scottish Governments as Brexit approaches.

It also gives an insight into the tactics that will be used by the Scottish Conservatives as Ms Sturgeon takes the country further down the road towards a second independence referendum.

It is an attempt to counter Ms Sturgeon’s anti-Westminster rhetoric and provide an alternative argument to her claims that the UK government is standing in the way of Scotland when it comes to Brexit.

It is a reminder that the SNP and Scotland are not synonymous and there exists another strand of Scottish opinion, which believes that Ms Sturgeon’s proposal for a separate Scottish Brexit deal does not make economic sense.

“The Nats are trying to turn this into an argument about Westminster stopping us from doing what we want – Scotland is being threatened, there are to be no compromises,” a Tory source said yesterday. “But this group is saying it is not in our self-interest to do a separate deal. Why on earth would we want to do it in the first place? The option is completely against Scotland’s economic interests.”

Those chosen to write the report did, as Mr Russell’s spokesman put it, include “a heavy dose of Tory politicians”.

But the panel of authors was supposed to reflect a broader constituency. Hence the inclusion of Gavin Hewitt, a former ambassador and chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.

And the Tory politicians deliberately included those from both sides of the Brexit debate with Professor Adam Tomkins MSP (Remain) and Alexander Stewart MSP (Leave) sitting on the panel.

Of course, it remains the case that Brexit could prove problematic for one particularly prominent Remainer – Ms Davidson. A hard Brexit would leave her open to attack, given her previous remarks on the importance of access to the EU single market for Scotland. The document tries to anticipate those lines of attack by talking up the potential for global trade after Brexit. If Scotland capitalises from the potential to do international business after Brexit, the report suggests exports to the rest of the world could be more than double those to the EU.

“Everyone knows Ruth was against Brexit and still thinks things are going to be tough, but the view is that there are opportunities that have to be exploited,” the Tory source said.

“This is a new landscape and the question now is how do we get Scotland Brexit ready?”

With the SNP and Tories digging further into their trenches on their differing sides of the Brexit battle line, there is one passage from the report which is notable for its optimism.

The authors point out that the UK government is entering negotiations with 27 other EU states and says the “primary objective” of all UK governments should be to get the best possible outcome from the talks.

“It is pivotal that all parts of the UK come together and present a united front, so that efforts are focused on getting the best possible deal,” the report says.

It is a plea for unity that may come from the heart, but seems little more than a forlorn hope.