politics

May’s Next Brexit Headache Is Trying to Keep Scotland Happy

  • Devolved governments in Wales, Scotland wary of power grab
  • PM racing to pass EU Withdrawal Bill to avoid legal limbo
Theresa May Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

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No sooner does Theresa May put one Brexit dilemma to rest than another rears its head.

After finally winning her Cabinet’s approval for an ambitious set of negotiating goals, the prime minister now faces threats from her political opponents in Scotland and Wales to derail her crucial European Union exit law.

The Scottish and Welsh devolved governments want May to guarantee that when the U.K. leaves the EU in one year’s time, powers that return to London are automatically passed on to them.

But May’s U.K.-wide government says it might not be possible to deal with all legal complexities that the devolution will require in the short time left before the country quits the bloc. She’s proposing a temporary plan to keep control of some laws until they can be dealt with and handed to the governments in Wales and Scotland -- a move that her opponents say is a “power grab.”

The Scottish and Welsh authorities, which May’s Conservative Party does not control, are putting forward their own rival laws that threaten to cause legislative chaos. The matter could end up in the Supreme Court.

The question is sensitive for May because she doesn’t want to reignite the debate over whether Scotland should separate from the rest of the U.K. as she’s trying to negotiate Brexit.

Withdrawal Bill

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon shelved her push for another referendum on the country’s independence after her Scottish National Party lost seats in last year’s general election. Sturgeon opposed Brexit and has said she wants to keep her country in the EU’s single market.

Nicola Sturgeon

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Thousands of EU regulations currently apply in the U.K. but will have no legal force when the country ceases to be a member. May is racing to pass her EU Withdrawal Bill, which aims to replicate these regulations so there’s no legal black hole in the domestic British statute book after Brexit. If Scotland and Wales derail her legislative plans, May could find it impossible to deliver a smooth exit.

After weeks of failed talks with politicians in Wales and Scotland, May’s U.K. government is putting forward amendments in Parliament to her EU Withdrawal Bill. They will set out in detail how May plans temporarily to keep control over areas such as agriculture, fisheries, food labeling and public procurement, while devolving other matters such as energy efficiency, water quality and carbon capture and storage.

“Our amendments respect and strengthen the devolution settlements across the U.K., but still allow the U.K. government to protect the vitally important U.K. common market, providing much-needed certainty and no new barriers to doing business,” Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said in an emailed statement. “We continue to hold constructive discussions in the hope of finding an agreed way forward.”

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