Tories bid to outflank SNP in post-Brexit powers row with ‘Union guarantee’

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The Scottish Government will be challenged to back a ‘Union guarantee’ as part of Brexit legislation being rushed through Holyrood, in a bid by the Scottish Conservatives to outflank the SNP over devolution.

Ruth Davidson’s party will table an amendment to the Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill, requiring Scottish ministers to stick to existing regulations in key areas and not endanger UK internal market.

In a deepening dispute over post-Brexit powers, the SNP administration is pushing the Continuity Bill through Holyrood as emergency legislation. The Bill challenges Westminster’s constitutional authority and claims all devolved powers returning from Brussels after Brexit, despite UK ministers saying two dozen of them must be reserved in order to protect internal trade within the UK.

UK and Scottish sources are reported to be preparing for the dispute to end up in the Supreme Court if agreement cannot be reached before Westminster legislation, in the shape of the EU Withdrawal Bill, is voted on in the House of Lords in May.

This week peers will hold their first debates on the portions of the Withdrawal Bill dealing with devolution.

At Holyrood, the Scottish Conservative amendment to the Continuity Bill would commit ministers not to “impede or obstruct the operation of the United Kingdom domestic market as it operated before exit day”.

It would prevent the Scottish Government from “the making of any regulation or enactment that would result in regulatory divergence materially damaging the ability of individuals, corporations or entities based in Scotland to trade, contract or do business in any form, with individuals, corporations or entities in the rest of the United Kingdom”.

Adam Tomkins, the Scottish Conservatives’ constitution spokesman said: “The rest of the UK is Scotland’s biggest marketplace. Whatever else happens with Brexit, we must ensure we do nothing that damages access to it.”

“We are opposed to the SNP’s Wrecking Bill because we fear it will do just that. That’s why our amendment is necessary.”

Mr Tomkins added: “Wherever parties stand on the constitution, all should be able to support giving this guarantee. It is in Scotland’s interests we do so.”

However, the move appears unlikely to get support from Scottish Labour, with a spokesman saying: “This attempt by Ruth Davidson to put a sticking plaster over her party’s attack on devolution is jaw-droppingly shameless.

“It is the Tories who have caused the whole disastrous Brexit situation - and their shambolic handling of the negotiations continue to make a bad situation worse.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government’s Brexit minister Michael Russell said: “This is yet another stealth attack by the Tories on devolution - if they can’t take Scotland’s powers away, they want to prevent us using them.

“There are already differences in key policy areas which do not prevent trade within these islands or beyond it.

“We are determined to do everything we can to protect Scotland’s interests in this process - we are continuing to negotiate with the Tory UK Government to try and agree on changes to their Withdrawal Bill that protect devolution.

“This amendment simply confirms that Ruth Davidson’s Tories care more about the constitution than protecting jobs, businesses and livelihoods here in Scotland.”