This morning’s Daily Express reports that David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, has claimed “that a “differential arrangement” for Scotland could be “workable and credible”, and contrives to suggest that he’s positively indicating that there may be one.
Such news would, if true, come as a surprise to those of us basing our assumptions on the Prime Minister’s muscularly unionist approach thus far, not least what she said at the conference:
“Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. There is no opt-out from Brexit. And I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”
With Downing Street and most of the ministers involved – with the apparent exception of Philip Hammond and David Davis – keeping their lips sealed on the plan for Brexit, it’s natural that journalists should parse what does emerge very carefully. But that’s no excuse for failing to account for the context in which something is said.
In truth this story is more likely to represent the shortcomings of excitable select committee reporting than any insight into the Government’s negotiating strategy.
At a select committee hearing the subject has to provide some sort of answer to the questions put to them by MPs, and Mundell is no exception. So if somebody asked him about a separate Scottish deal, he has only a few options.
Flat-out refusing to consider any sort of consideration would be not only misleading but a gift to the beleaguered separatists, who are trying to adapt to the realisation that Brexit has not spurred any increased support for their cause. Any subsequent finessing of that position would be drowned by the top line, and the Secretary of State knows it.
Indeed, the Daily Express story is proof of it. Read it through and you realise that Mundell’s position is quite different from the one implied by the headline.
Broadly speaking he says that whilst he is willing to consider special treatment if a persuasive case can be made for it, he is unpersuaded by the SNP’s arguments to date, and wary of letting nationalists demand difference for difference’s sake.
Indeed, taking his contribution in the round a more accurate headline would be something like “Scottish Secretary unpersuaded by demands for special treatment”, and with that headline any apparent gap between Mundell and Theresa May – or seeming enthusiasm for the sort of confederal proposals put forward by some constitutional reformers – disappears.
To prevent Brexit being a boon to the separatists the Government must avoid damaging constitutional concessions whilst staying engaged and maintaining what Alan Cochrane called positive “mood music”. The Scottish Secretary’s report to the Scottish Affairs committee is of a piece with that strategy, and tells us little else.