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17 October 2016

The 3 ways Scotland could block hard Brexit

The fightback begins. 

By Julia Rampen

If you’re one of the 48 per cent hoarding Marmite right now, stop panicking. Hard Brexit may never happen.

That is, if Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gets her way.

She told the SNP conference in Glasgow that a hard Brexit – where the UK leaves the single market and drastically reduces immigration – was “unacceptable” and that she would fight it.

But is this Braveheart rhetoric, or can Scotland actually stop Tory Brexiteers from getting their way? Here are the options:

1. MPs vote against hard Brexit

Ever since June, some opposition MPs who voted Remain have discussed the idea of voting against the legislation enacting Brexit. At the conference, Sturgeon confirmed that all SNP MPs will vote against such a bill. That’s 56 votes against Brexit, out of a potential 650. 

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But Sturgeon also called for a “coalition against a hard Brexit” which included Labour, Liberal Democrat and moderate Tory MPs. At the moment, when opposition MPs from different parties band together, they can muster about 286 votes against the government.

In the event of a Brexit vote, the opposition could look somewhat different, as Labour MPs who represent Eurosceptic constituencies may wish to back the government, while liberal Tories may decide to rebel. Nevertheless, the numbers suggest Brexit would have to be a truly horrific spectre for the SNP’s coalition to succeed.

2. The Scottish Parliament blocks it

The Scottish Parliament (like the Northern Ireland Assembly) was created within the framework of EU membership. When the EU legislates on devolved issues, such as agriculture and legal affairs, it’s the Scottish Government oversees the changes.

Meanwhile, in the UK, according to Fiona Killen, head of parliamentary and public law at Anderson Strathern, part of the devolution deal was a convention that Westminster wouldn’t legislate on devolved matters. 

Because a Brexit bill will mean intervening in areas like agriculture, this could cause “a constitutional crisis”, she said. 

The SNP depute leader Angus Robertson is already warning about “reverse devolution” and a “Brexit power grab”.

So what happens next? Well, no one really knows. But the Westminster government will find it far more difficult to overrule a national body than a political party. 

3. Brexit means… lots of different things

Scotland isn’t the only part of the UK kicking up a fuss about Brexit. London is pretty unhappy too. And Northern Ireland is in a quandary. Discussions are being had. 

There is still a possibility different interests within the UK could broker “bespoke” Brexit deals. The two main areas of contention are access to the single market and freedom of movement.

The FT reported on Monday that the City of London could get privileged access to the single market in return for payments. Scotland’s financial services lobby will no doubt pay close attention. 

Meanwhile, a hot topic at the SNP conference was Canadian-style regional immigration schemes. Such schemes have been dismissed before as impossible to control, but as the SNP MP Stuart McDonald pointed out, the UK’s existing arrangements with Ireland are not dissimilar. 

He told a fringe event that, for example, Ireland can change its rules on foreign spouses without the UK worrying too much: “The British government isn’t interested in that, because it doesn’t think there is a possibility of large numbers of people getting married to Irish citizens just to leave that comfortable existence to live and work in London illegally.”

While the SNP has made devolved immigration powers one of its bargaining demands, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is demanding a London-specific work permit scheme. If the UK government doesn’t play ball, the SNP is threatening to hold an independence referendum. As for London, Khan has the all-important business community on his side. 

If the UK government is willing to come to some kind of Brexit fudge, the devolved administrations will have succeeded in blocking hard Brexit. But this isn’t any consolation if you’re a Remainer in Sunderland.