As I See It: TERRY MURDEN on the row over the ‘power grab’, and tackling the daily briefings
Tackling the coronavirus pandemic has absorbed so much of the political agenda that it has become a rare moment when other issues have grabbed much attention.
However, as lockdown eases and the economy reopens the big topic of the last three years – Brexit – is challenging the pandemic and its various manifestations for headline attention, and with a new sense of urgency.
While the First Minister devotes almost all her energies to the public health agenda, her ministers have been raising their concerns over the EU “transition” process and the white paper presented to the Commons which will establish a new internal market when the UK properly leaves the bloc at the end of the year.
This new Brexit war is being fought on a number of fronts. Leave/Remain and second referendum arguments and are well behind us. We are now down to the nitty-gritty of how we actually get out of Europe – and what it will cost.
Already there have been raised eyebrows at the £705 million price of new border controls. Now we’re told in a 206-page document from the Cabinet Office that there will be 215 million customs declarations for businesses to complete when they trade with the continent. This will be managed by 50,000 customs agents at a cost to the country of £7bn.
Leavers will argue that this is a price worth paying; that even £7bn does not compare to even greater sums handed over to Brussels each year. Even the 50,000 agents can be justified as creating badly-needed jobs.
Ironically, though, it was the desire to cut down on Brussels bureaucracy that prompted many to vote leave in the first place. Now we are getting even more of it.
Michael Gove, who is overseeing the transition like a man in a hole who just keeps shovelling, is talking up the positives. He maintains that Britain will be better off in the end, able to make more of its own choices, and responds to SNP critics by saying more than 100 extra powers will transfer to Holyrood as a result of Brexit.
None of that is likely to be enough to satisfy Michael Russell, the Scottish Government’s Constitution and Brexit spokesman, who has been more concerned with the UK government’s plans for what he calls a “power grab” on the devolved administrations.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be forced to accept whatever new standards are agreed in future trade agreements on environment, animal welfare, food and state aid.
Mr Russell, together with the party’s ever-frustrated Westminster leader Ian Blackford, has been fulminating over the proposal, saying it undermines the devolution agreement, not least by “removing” powers without the consent of the devolved governments.
This is a flimsy argument, not least in the case of state aid, a power that the devolved administrations have never held, so there can be no complaint that it is being taken away.
The UK government insists this is not a power grab, but a power surge. It will create a new ‘internal market’ to ensure there is a level playing field across the UK, while handing some of the powers currently held by Brussels back to the devolved governments.
Mr Russell has declared that should the plan be passed, which it will be, the Scottish Government will not implement it and would challenge it in court. Would it carry out such a threat? We’ve enough experience of lawyers being drawn into the Brexit battle for us not to discount the idea, although by that time Mr Russell will be retired from politics and would be handing this particular chalice over to someone else.
The objectors are playing to the gallery of independence supporters, but even amid the sabre-rattling the Scottish Government has accepted the need for “common frameworks” to ensure trade is not unduly interrupted. It just objects to the UK government imposing its will on the devolved administrations.
Oh really? This from a party which wants a maintain the single market across the EU, but seemingly not so across the UK, and to withdraw from Westminster control and instead hitch its wagon to Brussels. Would the SNP not expect Brussels to “impose its will” on Scotland should it rejoin the EU? Over to you, Mr Russell.
Nicola Sturgeon’s daily briefings have become a lockdown institution, televised live to the nation on the grounds that we should all get up to date information on the coronavirus direct from the First Minister.
The Daily Sturgeon could be seen as an hour-long party political broadcast, overtly political in spite of claims to the contrary, and saving the SNP a fortune in paid messaging, with no opportunity for the opposition parties to take part or respond. Ms Sturgeon runs the show in presidential style, usually flanked by a minister or other party supporter, and answers only to the media, sometimes curtly and with little opportunity for come back.
There have been some interesting nuggets and soundbites along the way, but she often speaks for too long, appearing to answer the question while adding little of substance.
I’ve been on the programme about five times now and have yet to get a straight answer on most occasions. She clearly didn’t like my questions about the Higgins report, including the accusation from a St Andrews University professor that it drew heavily on civil service policy papers and that it overlooked the SME sector.
Nor did she have any clear answers when asked if the government had any big new ideas for the economy should the Prime Minister surprise us all and grant the Scottish government more borrowing powers. While she insists she is focused only on beating the virus, there are indications in her brief answers on the economy that this is not one of her strongest hands.
That said, the FM has appeared largely consistent in her messaging, and sometimes it is better to say nothing than risk contradiction. Opinion polls tell us she has come out of the briefings better than her TV counterparts at Westminster.
Hancock’s Half Hour is no more, and Boris Johnson seemed to tire of the daily routine. It has left the UK Cabinet to issue what appear to be their personal off-the-cuff views on how to handle the pandemic, rather than speak with one clear voice. One gets the impression that they don’t even consult each other before uttering their latest take on what we’re all supposed to do; the face coverings issue being the latest example.
These muddled messages have confused the public and harmed the UK government’s standing. It’s messy politics and just a bit worrying.