As I See It
Mundell’s weakness leaves Davidson holding Brexit baby
The publication of the Prime Minister’s draft “deal” with the European Union has seen Cabinet Ministers resign; expressions of abject horror across the Conservative Party and a stiffening of resolve from the opposition parties to reject it. The proposal has few friends, and Theresa May is about to find out if she has even fewer.
There have been seven ministerial resignations thus far, with the possibility of more, and letters from Tory MPs are now being submitted to the party’s 1922 Committee that should result in Theresa May facing a no-confidence vote next week. There could be a new Prime Minister before the end of the month. Or not; in which case May cannot be challenged for another year.
The fallout is not confined to London. The draft deal is causing particular problems for Scottish Conservatives, without whom Theresa May could not have formed a government following her shambolic General Election campaign last year.
Her colleagues north of the border have been alive to inherent weaknesses in her negotiating stance. Defending the integrity of the Union and championing Scottish fishermen were two issues at the heart of their success in returning MPs to Westminster – and they have made it known they wanted no compromises on either account.
Of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs, nine have constituencies with coastlines that once supported local fishing fleets and where “take back control” really means something. This week all 13 signed a letter calling on the Prime Minister to ensure the UK left the Common Fisheries Policy and regain control over who fishes in our waters, when they fish and what they fish. The Tories fear access to fishing grounds could be used as a bargaining chip with the EU.
Now, after some translation by researchers of EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s press conference, the draft proposal looks worse than first thought. Barnier confirmed in Brussels the Common Fisheries Policy remains “in play” with the Commission expecting that common access for EU fishermen will continue. Britain will indeed take back control of fisheries, as Theresa May says – but she can then trade away those fishing rights in return for another prize quicker than you can eat a Fish Supper.
If the Westminster government was to betray our fishermen and continue to allow EU boats to take the majority of the catch from UK waters it could be used by the SNP to argue Scotland would be better off being independent.
In another letter to the prime Minister, written by Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, and signed by the Scottish Party leader, Ruth Davidson, both threatened to resign if May’s EU negotiations resulted in the integrity of the Union being undermined. Their fear was that in order to resolve the issue of the UK-EU land border Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the UK by leaving it inside the single market. This would allow First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to demand the same treatment for Scotland.
There are some obvious reasons why Northern Ireland is different from Scotland and Sturgeon must know this. The obvious contrast is that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where there is a land border with the EU. In turn this raises concerns about any physical infrastructure being used by republican paramilitaries as a justification to return to violence.
Of course, were Scotland to remain in the Single Market, and England not, then by the EU’s line of argument there would need to be a physical border between Scotland and England. Nobody in the SNP appears to have worked this out yet.
Unfortunately, what Mundell and Davidson feared has come to pass. May’s draft deal does indeed keep Northern Ireland in the Single Market but also adds additional regulations and checks between goods travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland. A border down the middle of the Irish Sea will be the result.
In an unintended masterstroke this manages to upset both Mundell and Sturgeon because Northern Ireland is, after all, being treated differently – while Scotland is not.
All but one of the Scottish Conservative MPs have for now kept their counsel, but many more are unhappy. Aberdeen South MP, Ross Thomson, has said he cannot support the UK government’s draft proposals and has urged Mundell to resign like he said he would. Thomson deserves praise for his consistency and principle, and his colleagues should rally behind him.
The best that could probably happen for them is a change in Prime Minister so they no longer have to defend her indefensible plan. For Mundell, the outlook is less hopeful.
There are some unwritten universal rules in politics of which one is never threaten to resign if you don’t actually mean it. David Mundell has made a fool of himself by refusing to resign from office after writing that letter threatening to do as much. While people of principle such as Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, could not live with their conscience if they remained in government, Mundell could not manage to find his.
As a result of Mundell’s shamelessness, Ruth Davidson – understandably quiet during her maternity leave – is left looking politically vulnerable. Jackson Carlaw the interim Scots Tory leader is doing his best to brush it off, but political opponents and the Holyrood lobby smell blood.
The longer Mundell hangs on the more the focus will turn to Davidson, so Mundell must now be sacrificed to protect her. Putting her name to Mundell’s letter was a mistake, given she’s not even an MP, but Davidson’s minders should be able to find the words to protect her. Otherwise the Tory leader who’s just started a family might, thanks to David Mundell, soon be spending more time with it.