FMQs: Willie Rennie's Brexit mischief

Willie Rennie
Image caption Willie Rennie enjoyed sowing a spot of mischief at FMQs

Mischief is wrongly neglected as a potent factor in politics. The true greats have often had a dry, satirical wit. Think of Churchill on Attlee - "a modest man with much to be modest about".

Or Disraeli on his Liberal rival - "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity."

The most sonorous subjects often present themselves as a source of innocent merriment. So it was today when Willie Rennie - of the Gladstone persuasion - sought support from the first minister for a second referendum upon Brexit.

Actually, hang on. The Lib Dems hate talk of a "second" referendum. Doesn't go down well with the electorate, apparently, who hold the curious view that politicians should listen when the voters speak, for the first time.

So, rather, the Lib Dems prefer the phrase "people's choice". It would be, they argue, the first opportunity to vote upon the terms of the Brexit deal.

So, with those caveats duly lodged, back to this notion of a second referendum. Willie Rennie said it had been endorsed by "two of the great thinkers in the SNP". And by Keith Brown.

Cheeky, cheeky. Mr Brown's relegation to subordinate status was, of course, deliberate. He may be a cabinet secretary. He may be the favourite for the deputy leadership of the SNP. But that only enhances his role as a target for satire.

And who were the titans placed ahead of Mr Brown in the SNP pantheon of intellectual power? Step forward Noel Dolan and Kevin Pringle.

Image caption Nicola Sturgeon was also in a droll mood

Oh, come on, you must have heard of them. Fine chaps, both. Contacts, indeed chums, of mine of very long standing. In the case of Noel, an erstwhile BBC colleague.

Both served prolonged periods as special advisers to the Scottish government. Noel was the close confidant of Nicola Sturgeon, before his thoroughly merited retirement. Kevin was the spin doctor supreme to successive first ministers, before leaving for a successful career in the private sector.

But why, exactly, should Willie Rennie lionise them? Because, chums, they have spoken approvingly of his plan for a second referendum on Brexit. Sorry, sorry, "people's choice".

Plus, as noted earlier, that opportunity for mischief. Mr Rennie grinned broadly throughout his contribution.

Merciless teasing

In response, Nicola Sturgeon was also in droll mood. For years, Noel Dolan was permanently at her side, a loyal adviser and supporter.

And now? He was landing her in it over that Lib Dem idea for a second refe…sorry, people's choice. She would, she promised, "tease him mercilessly", next time they met. I think that was code for something else but I lack the translation.

Either way, Ms Sturgeon was not prepared to endorse Mr Rennie's notion, even although she has voiced generic sympathy for the plan in the past.

Why not? Three broad reasons, previously set out in this column.

Image copyright PA

One, a fair number of SNP supporters backed - and presumably continue to back - Brexit. Ms Sturgeon does not want to exasperate them unnecessarily.

Two, she still intends to hold a referendum on independence at some point. She would not want to set a precedent of a potential second poll on the outcome of negotiations with the UK.

Three, a rerun referendum might not produce a different outcome. Mr Rennie presumes that it would. But isn't it possible that the Brexiteers would be more entrenched in their zeal - and would turn out disproportionately - while some of the more cautious Remainers might feel that the issue was settled first time out?

Still with Brexit, you learned here yesterday that the finance and constitution committee at Holyrood was set to urge further concessions from the UK government over returning devolved powers.

So it proved, with Labour and the Greens voting with the SNP, while the Tories urged acceptance of the existing, revised offer (there are no Lib Dems on that committee).

This issue, as the Scottish Secretary David Mundell acknowledged, is now "going to the wire". Mr Mundell, giving evidence at Holyrood, even suggested that the wire might be stretched slightly, beyond third and final Reading of the Withdrawal Bill in the Lords next week.

It might, he indicated, just be possible to insert any deal which emerges into the bill when the Commons considers Lords amendments in early June.

Image caption David Mundell says talks could still go to the wire

But the Holyrood committee's majority says that's not needed. They want Clause 11 of the bill (on devolved powers) scrapped in favour of an inter-governmental agreement guaranteeing to freeze the rules on issues like farm subsidies until new UK-wide structures are in place.

Bruce Crawford, who convenes the committee, says it is time to put into operation the fundamental trust which is said to exist between the two administrations.

UK ministers insist they do trust the Scottish government. But still no deal.

They say that business requires the certainty of statute, of knowing that the EU rules on, for example, farming and food will definitely be replicated at Brexit, prior to being renegotiated across these islands.

One reason mentioned privately is Northern Ireland. It's pointed out that these arrangements are not bilateral, between London and Edinburgh. They have to encompass Wales - whose devolved government has reached a deal with the UK - and Northern Ireland, where the executive is currently on hold.

It's said further that the prime minister (and presumably her DUP chums) would be decidedly reluctant to proceed without statute. Thus, it is argued, granting an effective veto to Sinn Fein over the maintenance of post Brexit rules.

To all of which, the Scottish government - and now the majority on a Holyrood committee - say: there must be trust. It cannot be one-sided. They say these are EU elements to devolved powers - and should be devolved.

Westminster remains sovereign in these matters and can, in practice, legislate for withdrawal without Holyrood consent. So much is evident from the 1998 Scotland Act and from, among other matters, the pronouncement of the UK Supreme Court in the triggering of Article 50.

Mr Mundell was asked repeatedly today - by journalistic chums and by me - to state whether the UK Government would simply go ahead if Holyrood declines to consent next week. Displaying admirable constraint, he said - repeatedly - that the rules were well known and understood.

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