MPs in Westminster put down tools for the Christmas holidays today, and Theresa May was no doubt hoping for a well-earned rest. Instead, a 50-page memo from Nicola Sturgeon outlining Scotland’s proposals for Brexit landed in her in-tray.
As Christmas presents go, it won’t be the most warmly received.
Fortunately for May there aren’t any nasty surprises in the “Scotland’s Place in Europe” document. The Scottish question has been a fiendishly complicated one since the day of the referendum, which saw the U.K. vote to leave but Scotland vote — overwhelmingly — to remain. Today’s formal proposals from Edinburgh simply restate Sturgeon’s position, and place the ball firmly in May’s court.
Sturgeon’s fundamental ask is for Scotland to remain a full member of the European single market and the customs union. The U.K. as a whole, she argues, could stay in the single market as a member of the European Economic Area without betraying the mandate from English and Welsh voters to leave the EU. Alternatively, Scotland should be allowed to stay in the single market while the rest of the U.K. leaves.
The fallback option for Sturgeon is simple: a second referendum on Scottish independence. And her allies are insistent she has the nerve to go ahead with it.
Launching the proposals in Edinburgh today, the first minister was clear the independence option remains on the table. Officially, it is her preferred choice. But things have changed a little since October, when she announced — to great excitement — that the Scottish parliament would consult on plans for a new referendum.
At the time, all the indications were that May was determined to seek the hardest possible Brexit deal — out of the single market and customs union, with controls on immigration as the No. 1 priority. Scotland’s hopes for a soft Brexit, as outlined in today’s document, seem completely incompatible with that vision.
But the tone of remarks coming from ministers in Westminster has altered in recent weeks. Even the arch-Brexiteer, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, has suggested some kind of compromise deal could be sought on customs union membership.
It is early days, and the idea of the U.K. as a whole staying in the single market seems highly unlikely. But the Scottish wish for soft Brexit and the wishes of May’s government in Westminster don’t seem as far apart as they did a few short weeks ago.
What’s more, wouldn’t the threat of a Scottish independence referendum and the possible break-up of the U.K. be a useful foil for a prime minister seeking to persuade her Euroskeptic MPs a hard Brexit might not be best idea?
Maybe Sturgeon’s 50-page Christmas card will not be so unwelcome in Downing Street after all.
This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Read today’s edition or subscribe here.
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