Tom Peterkin: Tory tin ear on Scotland is fuelling '˜power grab' row

The UK Government's failure to meet a deadline to amend legislation to devolve some EU powers to Scotland after Brexit may play into the SNP's hands but a deal can still be struck, writes Tom Peterkin.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson's frustration with Conservative party leaders at Westminster has boiled over into public view in recent days (Picture: Greg Macvean)
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson's frustration with Conservative party leaders at Westminster has boiled over into public view in recent days (Picture: Greg Macvean)

The tortuous process of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union appears to be triggering quite an array of responses from Conservative politicians.

A few days ago the Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw complained – only half in jest methinks – that the prospect of speaking in a Brexit-related debate gave him a migraine.

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The eleventh day devoted to debating Brexit in the House of Commons proved all a bit much for dear old Sir Desmond Swayne, who very publicly nodded off while the finer points of EU withdrawal were being discussed. The Brexiteer blamed the rigours of an early morning swim in the Serpentine rather than weariness with the arch-Europhile Ken Clarke, who happened to be speaking at the time.

For Ruth Davidson the over-riding emotion of the moment has been frustration.

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In a series of interviews, the Scottish Conservative leader has expressed her exasperation at the UK Government’s lack of progress when it comes to setting out which EU powers will come to Holyrood.

Ms Davidson’s frustration is widespread across the Scottish party and nearly boiled over on Tuesday night when Conservative MPs from north of the border complained vociferously about the behaviour of the UK Government.

The frustration stemmed from Scottish Secretary David Mundell’s admission earlier this month that changes to Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill, which deals with devolution, had been delayed.

As it stands, Clause 11 would result in 111 powers in devolved areas being retained by Westminster when they are transferred from the EU.

This state of affairs that has led to long-standing SNP claims that Theresa May’s administration is undermining devolution by indulging in a power grab at the expense of the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Conservatives have been acutely alert to these criticisms and, in fact, the UK Government agrees that a substantial raft of powers should come to Holyrood, aside for those best dealt with across a common UK framework.

Therefore the missed deadline is a source of embarrassment, as is the fact that the changes to Clause 11 will be brought forward in the House of Lords rather than the Commons.

Hence Ms Davidson’s frustration and some forthright remarks in the House of Commons chamber from Stirling Tory MP Stephen Kerr.

“It sticks in my craw,” said Mr Kerr. “It’s not really good enough and as a member of the House of Commons I hang my head to think that we have somehow dropped the ball.”

Mr Kerr lamented the lost opportunity to make the changes and thereby “pull the rug from under” the SNP’s “squalid argument”.

His frustration was palpable. “It would have shown them (the SNP) up as the creators of grievance rather than giving grievance a voice,” he said. “The [UK] Government had control of the timetable. The deadlines were created by them, but they have let this chamber down by not delivering on what they promised.”

With the Scottish Tories now a force at Westminster thanks to the swelling of their ranks to 13 MPs and Mrs May’s failure to win an outright majority, the UK Government should listen to the likes of Mr Kerr.

The problem for Mr Kerr and his Tory colleagues north of the border, however, is that the UK Government appears to have a bit of a tin ear when it comes to matters Scottish.

UK ministers should remember that sorting out the Irish border is not the only constitutional hurdle that has to be overcome when exiting the EU. The politics of Scotland and Wales have to be taken into account when devising Brexit strategies.

Scottish Conservative sources say it was the sudden departure of Damian Green from Mrs May’s Cabinet, rather than ignorance of Scottish politics, that has led to the current situation. Mr Green, they say, was adept at over-ruling Whitehall officials whose default position was for powers to go London.

Whatever the reason, missing the Clause 11 deadline gives the SNP ammunition and complicates an already complex situation.

Much of the frustration felt in Tory circles north of the border is down to a feeling that progress is being undermined. Last year there was a suggestion that talks between the Scottish and UK Governments were unusually constructive. A more collegiate atmosphere was evident in negotiations and it seemed as though Scottish Tory attempts to act as honest broker between the two governments was bearing fruit.

The Clause 11 public relations foul-up has rather spoiled that atmosphere, but the Scottish Tory insiders say there is still optimism that a ‘more powers’ deal can be struck.

Their optimism is based on the notion that striking a deal will suit both governments in one way or another. Mr Mundell has promised that Brexit will bring a “powers bonanza” to Holyrood. The Tory calculation is that the SNP may be critical of any arrangement short of outright independence, but will generally support moves that help make the Scottish Parliament more powerful.

As one senior Scottish Conservative put it yesterday, if a more powers deal fails to materialise the SNP has nowhere to go other than a second independence referendum.

With a YouGov poll suggesting yesterday that only 36 per cent of Scots want another independence vote in the next five years, calling indyref2 is a gamble – a massive gamble that would wake Sir Desmond Swayne from his slumbers and do little for Jackson Carlaw’s migraine.