Support for independence grows as the threat of crashing out of the EU looms

Donald Tusk, the outgoing president of the European Council, warned us not to waste time when the EU granted the UK a second extension of the Article 50 negotiating period to October 31. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

Last week, with less than 40 days of parliamentary time left before the deadline expires, MPs were reduced to hijacking the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to try to prevent the new Tory leader from proroguing parliament to ensure a no-deal Brexit — despite overwhelming opposition to that outcome. While the scale of the government’s subsequent defeat was significant, it does not mean that prorogation cannot happen; just that, if it does, parliament will have to sit for a minimum of five days in October, unless a Northern Ireland Executive has been formed.

Furthermore, whether five days would be enough to stop no-deal from happening is debatable. If the withdrawal agreement cannot be passed, the only way to stop no deal is to mandate the UK government to seek a further extension, with revocation of Article 50 as a fallback position. While it is not clear that an act of parliament would be required, without one the decision to revoke might be open to legal challenge. To pass such an act, MPs would need to seize control of the order paper and get all stages of a bill through parliament. There is a further complication in that some believe a money resolution — necessary when a new bill proposes spending public money on something that hasn’t previously been authorised by an act of parliament — would be required for a revocation bill, and those are the responsibility of government.

There would be more time in hand to resolve these dilemmas if the Labour front bench had supported my motion to replace no deal with revocation as the default position back in April. Instead, the Labour whip recommendation was to abstain. In the event, 121 Labour MPs supported the motion. But, if the 104 who abstained had joined them, the motion would have had 295 votes and come out at the top of the pile of the indicative votes.

The evidence that no deal would be disastrous is overwhelming. Last week, the House of Commons select committee on Brexit published a report on “The consequences of ‘No Deal’ for UK business”. It states that crashing out of the EU without a deal would lead to “severe disruption of the economy, pose a fundamental risk to the competitiveness of key sectors . . . and put many jobs and livelihoods at risk.”

The report follows on from economic forecasts published by the Office for Budget Responsibility which found that Scotland and the UK would fall into recession next year if there was a no-deal exit.

The OBR also revealed that no deal could lead to a plunge in the value of the pound and leave a £30bn black hole in the public finances.

In Scotland, where the projected hit to gross domestic product in the event of no deal is 8 per cent, patience is wearing thin. Opinion polls show that support for independence is growing. When a recent Panelbase poll asked what would be better for Scotland, independence or staying in the UK under a no-deal Brexit, the result was 59 per cent for independence and only 41 per cent for no deal in the UK. When asked how they would actually vote in a second independence referendum faced with a no-deal Brexit, the majority for independence was smaller, at 52 per cent to 48 per cent. However, the direction of travel is clear. Perhaps most significantly, a majority of 51 per cent are now in favour of a second independence referendum either while the UK is still negotiating to leave the EU or once it has finished the negotiations.

It was a cross-party group of Scottish parliamentarians who, together with the barrister Jolyon Maugham, secured the ruling by the European Court of Justice that Article 50 could be revoked unilaterally. Next week, a cross-party group led by Scottish and Welsh parliamentarians will raise a further action in the Scottish courts to prevent the prorogation of parliament by an incoming prime minister. If we succeed, this will guarantee more time to resolve the dilemma of how to prevent no deal.

Joanna Cherry QC MP

First published in the Financial Times

Joanna Cherry QC MP in the Chamber

Joanna Cherry QC MP


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