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28 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

The government’s Brexit devolution plans have divided the UK – should London be worried?

After Brexit, the government is determined to “take back control” – but where exactly will that control be?

By Dulcie Lee

During the launch of the Vote Leave campaign in February 2016, Tory ministers stood awkwardly for a photo opp, clutching a huge sign reading: “Let’s take back control.” The message was pretty clear, and one that resonated with the voters.

Fast forward to today, and what seemed such a straightforward idea has proved to be a little more difficult. These nebulous slogans do well as a vague and often intangible political catch-all (“send them back” – to where?), but now we’re really “taking back control”, and what that really means is up for grabs. Ministers from the devolved nations are accusing the UK government of an unjustified power grab and the UK government are facing a potential constitutional crisis.

Currently, the EU Withdrawal Bill proposes that Brussels’ authority in devolved matters such as farming will got to Westminster after Brexit. Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon have both dismissed the government’s proposal, claiming they face a “power grab” by London. While the leaders come from different parties, they’ve been in marching step over Brexit, and bringing with them a lot of political clout.

In an attempt to break the stalemate between the UK government and devolved administrations, cabinet minister and de facto deputy prime minister David Lidington laid out a new offer in a speech on Monday. He promised that “the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – and not in Whitehall”, but admitted the UK government would retain control over some aspects of lawmaking which are normally devolved, such as agriculture.

He claimed this so-called power grab would be a temporary necessity to protect internal trade within the UK. This wasn’t enough for Sturgeon, who spurned this latest offer, saying it would be “very likely” that the Scottish Parliament will not give consent unless the bill is amended. Though this wouldn’t stop Brexit, it would make things much harder politically for Theresa May, as she would be seen to be fracturing the UK. The Scottish and Welsh governments say they will not give legislative consent for the EU Withdrawal bill, and have already rejected a proposed amendment saying it didn’t go far enough to protect devolution.

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The hypocrisy of the UK government – taking back control, but not giving it back – could lead to an even more fragile union. But will voters mind if all their repatriated control is all concentrated in Whitehall? Well, a large proportion of them will, yes: every region in Scotland voted Remain, and almost 48 per cent voted to leave the UK in the 2014 independence referendum. There are also two million Leave voters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland that need to be convinced that one way or another, power has been truly returned to them. 

But the appetite for more devolution generally varies around the constituent countries of the UK. Although the No campaign won the Scottish independence referendum after a last-minute promise of more devolved powers, less than half of Scottish voters believe devolution has improved Scotland’s health and education service or its economy, according a poll last year. But in Wales, a BBC poll found 44 per cent of voters said they wanted the National Assembly to have even greater powers.

It’s highly unlikely that the UK government will face the same level of grassroots backlash from its traditional Tory voters for holding onto these powers, compared to if it had announced that some powers would be staying in Brussels. But in comparison, Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party will be under pressure from its own voters if it is seen to concede to Westminster. So should Theresa May be worried? The chances of Sturgeon pushing for another independence referendum have dipped, but she resurrected the threat last month by saying she would decide on whether to push for indyref2 by the end of the year. Jones, on the other hand, is unlikely to be particularly intimidating given that Wales voted Leave.

When it comes down to it, Westminster can continue with the the EU Withdrawal Bill despite what the devolved leaders think. The problem is that, while getting consent from the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments is not a legal obligation, it is an important convention. Should May fail to get their approval and motor on regardless, she would risk a constitutional crisis. 

While it may not be dominating the Brexit agenda, this devolution impasse is yet another aspect of Brexit where May and the Tories are unlikely to come out of this unscathed. One thing’s for sure: Jones and Sturgeon are certainly not going to accept a half baked repatriation of powers when the UK government would accept nothing less from the EU.