UK Government warning as SNP declares ‘guerrilla war’ on Brexit

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The UK government has hit back following a week of attacks from the SNP over its handling of devolution and Brexit, claiming “we don’t have to tiptoe around anymore” when dealing with Scottish ministers.

In a sign that relations between the governments in Edinburgh and London have reached a new low, a senior UK source said: “We’ve been walking on eggshells. At least now all the eggs are broken.”

The declaration follows an explosive week at Westminster culminating in a threat by the SNP to launch a procedural ‘guerrilla war’ to bog down the government’s Brexit programme.

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Anger at the length of time given to debate on an alleged ‘power grab’ at the heart of Brexit legislation prompted a Commons walkout by SNP MPs.

Nationalist MPs followed their Westminster leader Ian Blackford out of the Commons chamber after he was suspended while trying to force a vote on the issue in the middle of Prime Minister’s Questions.

A protest over the Westminster 'power grab'. Picture: John Devlin

A protest over the Westminster 'power grab'. Picture: John Devlin

The SNP has accused Scottish Secretary David Mundell of “totally shafting” Scotland and seeking to reverse the devolution settlement, by pushing through legislation that will see Westminster retain 24 powers in devolved areas returning from Brussels after Brexit.

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Labour joined calls for Mr Mundell’s resignation over his handling of the Withdrawal Bill process and the row is set to flare again on Monday when an emergency debate is held on Brexit’s impact on devolution.

Nicola Sturgeon said relations between the two governments would no longer be “business as usual”. The SNP’s Brexit minister, Michael Russell, hinted that co-operation in technical talks on how post-Brexit devolution will work could be at risk.

Nicola Sturgeon has backed her MPs. Picture: John Devlin

Nicola Sturgeon has backed her MPs. Picture: John Devlin

Responding to this week’s dramatic events, and to Mr Russell’s demand for a seat at trade talks, a senior UK government source said: “We engaged until we were blue in the face. We’ve been walking on eggshells. At least now all the eggs are broken. We don’t have to tiptoe around anymore. There’s a devolution rulebook. We’re playing by the rules. They’re trying to bend the rules.”

A meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) subcommittee on Brexit involving Mr Russell and his counterparts at the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) had been expected next week, but may not now take place because of diary clashes, it is understood.

The source added: “The bottom line is people want, expect and deserve their two governments to work together constructively. We’d be very concerned if they start pulling out of meetings of the JMC and its off-shoots.” Downing Street has urged the Scottish Government to “work constructively” on ensuring Brexit goes smoothly.

Mr Blackford has targeted the upcoming Trade Bill for disruption in the Commons, claiming there was “a real threat, if the government is prepared to do a deal with North America for example, [about] our interests being defended”.

The SNP MP Stewart McDonald said in the Commons that his party would adopt the “legitimate tactics” of 19th century Irish nationalists under Charles Stewart Parnell and told a rally in Glasgow yesterday the SNP would “frustrate every piece of government business and legislation”.

The former Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny Macaskill also called on the SNP to adopt Parnellite tactics, saying Irish nationalists “flourished in the chamber when it suited them, but never forgot that their purpose was to leave it … hopefully that will now be the template for the modern SNP.”

Meanwhile, Theresa May has warned she is pursuing a “high-risk strategy” by going back on a deal with pro-EU rebels to ensure the passage of vital Brexit legislation.

Tory backbenchers led by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve say they are not happy with a new amendment put down by the government on the ‘meaningful vote’ MPs will be offered on the final Brexit deal and will push for Mr Grieve’s original proposal.

The government is resisting attempts to give MPs the power to direct negotiations if there is no deal with Brussels by the end of November. The breakdown in trust on the Conservative benches sets up a new showdown next week when the Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons in the latest round of legislative ping-pong.

Pro-EU Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach said yesterday: “What seems to have happened is very late in the day that DExEU got involved and it looks like the process was hijacked.

“David Davis has sent out an email to the Lords which does not reflect the position and I would say is almost misleading in the way that it’s framed.

“It was quite clear that there were positive and constructive discussions that were taking place and in that very last hour something changed and there was no communication, no further discussion.

“I think it’s a very high-risk strategy.”

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “From our perspective, the amendment respects the tests set out by the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary.”

The Liberal Democrats have claimed a ‘Brexit effect’ boosted their result in Thursday’s Westminster by-election in London’s Lewisham East constituency, where the party’s share of the vote rose by five times to claim second, with 24.6 per cent.

Labour’s Janet Daby won comfortably with 50.2 per cent of the vote, but immediately put her party leadership on notice over its opposition to remaining in the EU single market.