Brexit Rebels in Scotland Add to Theresa May's Disarray

(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s quest to leave the European Union is riddled with infighting, and now another domestic political battle looks set to rumble on through the increasingly tricky negotiations.

Barring an 11th-hour deal, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is expected to withhold consent on Tuesday for Prime Minister Theresa May’s key Brexit legislation. The U.K. Parliament has the right to disregard the vote, but it would add to the disarray that’s loomed over the country since the Brexit referendum almost two years ago.

May is struggling to unite her cabinet over customs arrangements for trade after Brexit, is under threat of a mutiny by some lawmakers and her EU Withdrawal Bill has been torn apart by the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the U.K. Parliament at Westminster. Now she’s at risk of having to impose British sovereignty against the will of the Scottish Parliament unless there’s a compromise on what the Scots are calling a “power grab.”

“The Scottish issue is just one among many headaches,” said Akash Paun, senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London. “But I don’t think they should underestimate it. It becomes a bigger issue at the point when the bill is completing its passage through Westminster.”

Wings Clipped

Scotland voted to remain in the EU after voting to stay a part of the U.K. in a referendum in 2014. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose pro-independence Scottish National Party runs the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, vowed straight away to contest Brexit by holding another vote on breaking away from the rest of the U.K.

Public talk of defying Brexit, though, dissipated after May’s governing Conservative Party increased support in Scotland in last year’s election, even as she lost her U.K. parliamentary majority. The SNP had its wings clipped and the narrative shifted to how Scotland can keep the powers it has after Britain leaves the EU.

“The SNP has to wait and see what happens with Brexit,” said Nicola McEwen, politics professor at the Centre on Constitutional Change at Edinburgh University. “If the constitutional issue becomes about devolution and not about independence, then that helps them and not the Conservatives. It becomes about self-governance.”

Scotland is responsible for its own education, health and transport policies as well as the judicial system and some financial affairs. The U.K. ceded more autonomy as part of promises made during 2014’s independence referendum campaign.

Political Convention

Tuesday’s vote on May’s EU withdrawal bill follows a convention in U.K. politics that allows Scotland a say because the changes will affect policy areas it currently controls. The Scottish Government has said it can’t accept it without amendments.

The Scottish Parliament passed its own version of Brexit legislation, called the Continuity Bill, in March by a margin of 95 to 32 to ensure it retains control of areas that are currently devolved after Britain formally leaves the EU.

The British government said it would refer the bill to legal officers and a hearing is scheduled for July in the Supreme Court unless agreement can be found before then.

Scottish Brexit Minister Michael Russell said he hoped May’s team would accept his proposed solution of amending the clause allowing the U.K. to change EU laws affecting Scotland, and said the U.K government needed to show more flexibility in future talks. He also urged it to respect the outcome of Tuesday’s vote.

“We’ll go on talking and we’ll work with the other parties on this,” he told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday ahead of the vote. “But this is about protecting devolution which the people of Scotland voted for overwhelmingly, and there is no mandate to undermine that.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.