May Offers U.K. Nations a Role Shaping Brexit Strategy

  • U.K. faces ‘constitutional crisis’ without regional input
  • Prime minister meeting first ministers in London on Monday

May’s initiative is an olive branch to the regional leaders at a time when Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in particular have expressed concern about the damage Brexit will do.

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Theresa May offered the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a “direct line” to Brexit Secretary David Davis to help shape the strategy for exiting the European Union amid warnings that failure to bring them onside could spark a constitutional crisis.

The prime minister was due to make the offer at a meeting in Downing Street with the leaders of the devolved administrations on Monday, the first such gathering in two years, her office said in an e-mailed statement. A new committee, made up of Davis and representatives from the devolved administrations, will meet at least twice before the end of the year to discuss Brexit. Business Secretary Greg Clark was also presenting proposals for the development of a national industrial strategy, and how the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can help shape it.

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“The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work,” May said. “The new forum I am offering will be the chance for them all to put forward their proposals on how to seize the opportunities presented by Brexit.”

May’s initiative is an olive branch to the regional leaders at a time when Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in particular have expressed concern about the damage Brexit will do to their economies. Scotland and Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. to share a land border with the EU, voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the union, and the Scottish government says Brexit may justify another referendum on independence. The prime minister’s spokeswoman ruled out separate Brexit deals for individual nations.

Constitutional Crisis

The premier’s proposal came as the Institute for Government said Britain faces a “constitutional crisis” unless May finds a way to involve the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in her Brexit talks.

“As with a dog walking on its hind legs, we should be impressed if the four governments manage to work together at all,” said Akash Paun, a fellow at the London-based advisory group. “But when it comes to Brexit, the stakes are high. If the dog topples over after a few tentative steps, and consensus cannot be reached, the result could be a constitutional crisis.”

While May has no constitutional duty to consult the first ministers, to ignore them would be a “reckless strategy,” the institute said. Imposing a Brexit settlement on Northern Ireland could provoke a resurgence of sectarian tensions. The institute proposed a committee of Brexit ministers from each nation to keep the regional governments engaged and find areas of agreement -- something May is now proposing.

“I want Monday’s meeting to be the start of a new grown-up relationship between the devolved administrations and the U.K. government -- one in which we all work together to forge the future for everyone in the United Kingdom,” May said.

Single Market

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is already preparing legislation for another referendum on independence if May strikes a Brexit deal that takes the country out of the EU single market for goods and services. She wrote in Monday’s Financial Times that her administration is preparing “detailed proposals” on how Scotland can secure a “continuing close relationship with Europe” after Brexit.

“While I accept that there is a mandate to take England and Wales out of the EU, I do not accept there is any such mandate to take any part of the U.K. out of the single market,” Sturgeon wrote.

The idea of a separate deal for Scotland was rejected by May’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower. “The government is going to negotiate its departure from the EU as one United Kingdom,” Bower told reporters in London ahead of the meeting. “A single U.K. position is vital to protect the U.K.’s interests as a whole. We need to make sure that we are not putting up barriers for trade within the U.K.”

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