Last week, Parliament returned after conference season (rather uncharitably, the Speaker still doesn’t extend recess to cover SNP conference) and reality began to bite. It is all very well swanning around Liverpool discussing your “mandate” or explaining to adoring crowds in Birmingham that “Brexit means Brexit”; the day-to-day of parliamentary business always finds you out.
Theresa May is in a tricky spot of someone else’s making. On the one hand it is unlikely to be sustainable – in our parliamentary democracy, with so slim a majority – to continue to bar the House of Commons from voting on the what sort of Brexit we go for. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine how on earth the Government will be able to negotiate such a complex issue, with so many working parts and so many vested interests, if its hands are constantly tied by the whims of MPs. She and her trio of Brexiteers are in a bind and there is no obvious way through except to continue as she has thus far and hope, frankly, that something turns up to change the game.
The steady descent of the pound and the first flushes of Brexit-related trouble (Unilever’s dispute with Tesco, Nissan’s warning about future investment) will ratchet up the pressure on May to soften the apparent terms of her approach. Already, representatives of Vote Leave are engaged in a loud and public cry of “but that’s not what we meant”. The trouble for the likes of Carswell, Hannan and Gove is that whatever they boisterously imagined Britain might become when it voted to leave the EU, the political reality looks quite different and quite stark. As Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said last week – “the only alternative to hard Brexit is no Brexit”.
It is against this backdrop of constitutional turmoil that the Scottish Nationalist Party gathered in Glasgow. Over the past year an element of political gravity has begun to sneak back into the physics of Scottish political life. The SNP failed to win an outright majority at Holyrood (although they remain the single biggest party and are still in government) and the Brexit vote has not yet produced the Indy-bounce that Sturgeon and comrades had hoped. Instead, despite the majority of Scots voting to Remain, there has been no significant movement in the proportion who favour an independent Scotland. The grim realisation that an independent Scotland would not automatically retain EU membership, would have breathtaking levels of debt and would have a dangerously unproductive economy has tempered decisive anger at Brexit. Last week, at her conference, the First Minister began the process of changing that. ‘Hard Brexit’, she declared, means a second referendum. For Sturgeon, the Single Market is a red line – for May and Tusk, tasked with sorting out this mess, continued and uninterrupted membership of the Single Market looks increasingly politically unachievable for both sides.
Constitutional wrangling may well come to define this Parliament and all that the Governments in Westminster and Holyrood seek to do. Both May and Sturgeon find themselves slightly cornered. For Sturgeon, the promised land of independence looks perilously close to slipping away despite events that she had hoped would render it inevitable. For May, delivering Brexit would be hard enough but she must attempt to achieve this in the face of extraordinarily diverse and fractured opposition. But don’t underestimate either woman; both are formidable, experienced survivors with sharp instincts. And both are capable of radical, taboo-busting bursts of political energy. They will need them if they are to find their ways out of the predicaments in which they find themselves.