The man with plans on bespoke EU deal

FINALLY, some good news on Brexit. We have a hotline. Or, rather, Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell has a working line to UK Brexit Secretary David Davis. When this was first announced, the SNP discovered it took a chilly 30 hours for a reply.

Now, not only is it fixed, but also the relationship is better, according to Mr Russell. “The hotline is working and we are able to have a good discussion,” he told the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee this week. It was a fascinating session, and not just for the telephony.

The erudite Mr Russell is an acquired taste (he used “perforce” in his opening statement and went on to quote Oscar Wilde) but he gave the best clues so far about Nicola Sturgeon’s long-awaited plan for a bespoke Scottish deal on Brexit. Holyrood is rife with speculation about the date for the plan, with December 19 the favourite.

Mr Russell, as only he could, said he expected it “within the octave, to speak in religious terms”. I think this means soon.

More usefully, he said he was looking at three options. There was an “undifferentiated option”, meaning Scotland leaving the EU under the same terms as the rest of the UK, but that would be “unacceptable” to the Scottish Government. There was also a “differentiated option”, in which Scotland secured a unique deal and, if that didn’t work, the third was a second independence referendum.

He also set out red lines: some form of membership of the EU single market and continued freedom of movement, goods, services and capital. I say some form, because he described it as a sliding scale.

At the top was the true membership enjoyed only by EU states, in which countries write the rules as well as abide by them; followed by European Economic Area membership like Norway; then European Free Trade Association-only membership like Switzerland; then customs union membership like Turkey.

So what exactly is the SNP’s proposal? The answer is nobody knows, not even Mr Russell. Instead of a single blueprint, the Scottish Government, having looked at more than 30 EU deals for “sub states” like Scotland, will publish “a range of options” and “possibilities” then invite the UK and EU to help it cobble them together. It’s less of a plan, more like tipping a box of Lego on the floor and asking if anyone else has the instructions.

It will “require goodwill”, Mr Russell said with understatement; not only that, but also “an increase in devolved powers”, including Holyrood control over immigration and employment law. He added: “There are a lot of possibilities. The real issue is to put those possibilities on the table and then to say this will require considerable negotiation between ourselves and the UK, between the UK and the [EU] 27, so this will have to be a collaborative effort.”

There is a logic to this. If the SNP staked everything on a single proposal which was rebuffed, it would be in a pickle. Multiple options may entice others to get involved. After all, Mr Russell argues, Scotland isn’t asking for anything special; it just wants to keep what it has.

The problem is that goodwill is conspicuously absent. Chancellor Philip Hammond was brutally clear last week that there would be no different deal for Scotland. That kind of attitude may help the SNP pick up some grievance votes, but it also makes the party look as if it didn’t really think this through. All of its “possibilities” rely on other governments riding to the rescue.

That leaves option three. Mr Russell said keeping a referendum on the table was “the right tactic”. However, it looks like more than a tactic; it feels like the endgame. Without a bespoke deal for Scotland – and why would states preoccupied with Brexit build one for us – what does Ms Sturgeon do? She’d bet the farm on Brexit. Not going to the country would be humiliating, shatter her credibility, and cause upheaval in her party.

But polls show dissatisfaction with her and her Government is rising. Last week’s NatCen Social Research report on Brexit found support for Leave was highest among habitual non-voters, those on the lowest incomes and those with the fewest educational qualifications.

In other words, a big chunk of those who voted Yes in 2014 also voted Leave. Their votes cannot be taken for granted in a second referendum based on a deeper embrace of the EU.

Ms Sturgeon’s proposals, whenever they appear, will have to be astonishingly appealing to other countries to come good. Her dilemma grows clearer by the day; a second referendum is becoming harder to avoid just as it is becoming harder to win.

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