The myth of Cameron's legal challenge to Salmond

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says UK government would not challenge Salmond's referendum.

Does the Scottish government have the legal right to hold a referendum on independence? Alex Salmond and some constitutional lawyers insist it does, the UK government and some constitutional lawyers insist it does not.

The vote Salmond intends to hold in autumn 2014 would be an advisory one (the SNP concedes that it does not have the power to hold a binding referendum) designed to provide him with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. But in his statement to the Commons yesterday, Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, declared that even this would be legally questionable. So, assuming Salmond proceeds, would the UK government challenge him in the courts? Apparently not. Here's what Moore told Scotland Tonight yesterday evening.

Interviewer: The idea that it could be legally challenged, who's going to mount that challenge?

Michael Moore: Anybody could and I don't think that a decision of this magnitude about whether or not Scotland stays part of the most successful multi-nation state in the history of the world or goes its own separate way, I don't think that should be left ...

Interviewer: Would the UK government launch that challenge though?

Michael Moore: While there's a prospect that anybody could, it's not our intention to do that.

But as the blog Wings over Scotland asks, why would the UK government not challenge what it ostensibly believes is an illegal attempt to break up the Union? Moore's words will inevitably prompt questions about the government's true opinion of the legality of a Scottish-led referendum.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.