Scotland's Leaders Challenge May as Brexit Threatens U.K. Union

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was confronted with a seemingly impossible choice after interventions from Scotland’s political leaders: rewrite her Brexit plans, tear up the United Kingdom or risk getting no deal with the European Union.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called on the opposition Labour Party to work together to change the terms of Brexit. She seized the opportunity thrown up on Monday by May’s failure to bridge the gap between the demands on each side of the Irish border over future customs arrangements.

Scotland’s Conservative leader Ruth Davidson -- a popular figure in Theresa May’s party who was vocal in the campaign against Brexit -- also weighed in to tell the prime minister that if Northern Ireland keeps rules that would give it some access to the EU single market, then so must the whole of the U.K. Sturgeon on Monday had said that if Northern Ireland gets exceptional status, Scotland wants it too.

“This could be the moment for opposition and soft Brexit/remain Tories to force a different, less damaging approach -- keep the U.K. in the single market and customs union,” Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party favors independence, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday.

The unraveling of the U.K.’s divorce deal in a dramatic day in Brussels a day earlier laid bare one of the fundamental paradoxes of Brexit: May risks undermining the union at home in order to leave the one in Europe.

Red Line

The trigger for the constitutional uproar is May’s proposal to treat Northern Ireland differently once the U.K. quits the bloc.

It’s designed to meet Ireland’s demand that there be no border on the island of Ireland after the split. The invisible border is only possible now because of the EU customs union and single market. Any proposal to avoid imposing a hard border will inevitably be unacceptable to at least one party.

Scotland's Leaders Challenge May as Brexit Threatens U.K. Union

The proposal that scuppered talks on Monday would have kept rules in Northern Ireland aligned with those of the Republic. That was a red line for the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 lawmakers prop up May’s minority government in London, because it would probably have meant a border between the province and mainland Britain.

While the DUP rejected such a deal, leaked details of the proposal prompted Sturgeon and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare that if Northern Ireland could get exceptional access to the single market they should too. Wales weighed in to the same effect.

While the U.K. as a whole chose to exit the EU in last year’s referendum, Scotland, London and Northern Ireland all voted to remain.

Scottish Sentiment

The picture in Scotland is further complicated by the fact that Sturgeon and her SNP -- the third biggest party in the U.K. Parliament after May’s Conservatives and Labour want independence from the U.K. They have said that Brexit gives them reason to push for further autonomy to mitigate the effects of leaving Britain’s trading partner.

The Conservative party’s full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and the union between the U.K.’s constituent nations is one of its core principles. Many Conservative lawmakers shared the DUP’s concerns about erecting barriers between the enclave and the mainland.

“While I recognize the complexity of the current negotiations, no government of the Conservative and Unionist Party should countenance any deal that compromises the political, economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom,” Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, said.

Labour Choices

Much now rests on the Labour Party, which has maintained an ambiguous stance on Brexit. It has left the door open to remaining in the customs union, and as recently as Saturday leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party hadn’t decided if it would back a second Brexit referendum. Chris Leslie, a Labour lawmaker who backed staying in the EU, said the only solution now was to reverse course and stay in the single market and customs union.

Hilary Benn, a senior Labour lawmaker who sits on the Parliament’s Brexit Committee, laid the blame with May’s Tory government.

“The choices the government has made in Brexit have consequences,” he said in an interview in London. “And they are now coming face-to-face with the trade-offs that will have to be made.”

Sturgeon suggested the ball was now in Labour’s court. “How about it @jeremycorbyn?” she tweeted.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.