If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table

Like most people who work in politics, I have spent the last few days, weeks and months trying to figure out if Theresa May has any kind of long-term strategy for how to handle Brexit and, if she does, what that might be.

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Also like a lot of people who work in politics, I tend to find myself reaching for some kind of comparison for political drama or documentary to explain what I think.  That is often West Wing or Yes Minister.

In this case, however, it is the new version of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.  In that show there is a recurring line which Frank Underwood uses to explain why he takes what at first glance seems like illogical or risky actions – “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

That is the closest I have come so far to trying to explain what Theresa May might be up to.  Here is Prime Minister, previously regarded by many as a steady, safe pair of hands – winning the Conservative Party leadership by virtue of being the only candidate not to make a stupid mistake.

And yet, her approach to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and her dealings over a possible second Scottish independence referendum have seemed more the actions of a spoilt teenager, taking intractable black or white positions.  This has often seemed unreasonable and surely doomed to fail, afterall where is the famous British strength of negotiation and compromise, something Brussels diplomats will genuinely miss when the country exits the EU?

On Brexit, the Prime Minister is smart enough to know that in a traditional negotiation she has a very weak hand indeed.  One country versus 27 who are angry, have self-preservation at the core and, crucially, control many of the timescales.  No one would realistically expect to walk in to that kind of fight and not come out more bloodied that the opponents.  However, her actions, right from her decision to delay the triggering of Article 50, despite initial howls from the EU top brass, through to the way she has managed the furore about EU nationals is not what might be thought of as the traditional “British” way of handling diplomacy.

In her dealings with Nicola Sturgeon as well, the Mrs. May has been extreme – starting off with a “No” when questioned about whether Brexit was a sufficient material change to justify a second independence referendum and sticking to that hard line this week with a brisk “now is not the time” response to the First Minister’s demands for new constitutional vote.  This didn’t seem like simply a negotiating position, this was seemed pretty definitive and with a hint of dismissiveness.

Hardly the Marquess of Queensberry rules here from the PM either then– no negotiation, no discussion, no pleasantries.  Just no, in fact.

The response of many in Scotland this week has been to dismiss this approach as a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand Scotland or just flat out doesn’t care as she is beholden to the right wing of her own party.

This may well be the case but perhaps Theresa May just doesn’t like the way the traditional table of British negotiation is set and knows the meal will end badly unless she upends the table and at least tries to improve the setting from disasterous to at least just bad.

Choose (political) life….

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It was hard to know where to start writing about politics in Scotland this week.  All sorts of “creative” ideas came to mind – for example I was going to try and write it like the famous “Choose Life” Trainspotting monologue to mark the premier this week of the sequel, T2: Trainspotting.  I even started a version to the tune of REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which seemed appropriate but my poetry and writing skills just aren’t up to it, although you read my terrible effort here anyway.

It is impossible to talk about the week in politics anywhere without at least mentioning the first week of Donald Trump’s Presidency.  Afterall, “The Donald” is well known to the Scottish body politic – as well as his mother originally being from Scotland (sorry about that), the billionaire courted controversy when he built a new golf resort on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.  After that, he conducted a high profile campaign to block an offshore wind farm he complained would put off visitors to the course.  The whole episode gives some in Scotland a small head start on our knowledge of the bullying, hyperbole and downright aggressive manner in which the most powerful politician in the world operates.

In most normal weeks, the tied vote in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday a Labour motion condemning the Scottish Government’s Budget plans would have led the headlines, particularly as it introduces the slim possibility of an early Scottish election..  Although the Presiding Officer, following convention, gave her casting vote to the government, there is clearly and genuine disquiet at Holyrood over the SNP’s spending plans the opposition claim will lead to drastic cuts to local services.  The Scottish Government, for their part, point to increased spending on health and education, before moving to one of their favourite tactics – if in doubt, just say “Wastemonster”, “Right Wing UK Government” and “Tories” over and over again, if possible in the same sentence.

However, that more humdrum drama was overshadowed by the decisions of the UK Supreme Court on what consultation is required to invoke the spectre that is Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty.  In Scotland, however, it was not the requirement for the UK Government to consult Westminster before triggering the Article which caused the biggest reaction.  Instead, it was the unanimous decision by the court that the UK Government was not required to formally consult the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, removing a potentially massive roadblock to the Prime Minister’s plans.

Although the hysterics and invective from the SNP, with shouts of “Traitor”, “Imperial Power” and “Control” ringing around both TV studios and social media platforms alike, were predictable, the decision could have serious implications for the seemingly never-ending debate over Scottish independence.

We have not seen the rise in support for Scottish independence since the Brexit vote that some expected but the issue remains very much the main dividing line in Scottish politics, with the SNP seeking to keep “all options open” for the future.  Nonetheless, it has been noticeable in recent months that Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric around #IndyRef2 (the hashtag is mandatory) has softened.  Although this week she reiterated that it was “all but inevitable”, the First Minister has repeatedly backed away from calls for a vote in the near future, even ruling it out during 2017.

Unlike her bombastic predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon is a more cautious political animal, knowing that a second independence defeat so soon after the one in 2014, would surely take the idea off the table for a real “generation” rather than just a few years.  But she faces the very difficult task of balancing that harsh reality with the fervent enthusiasm of her supporters who want more decisive action with a certain Mr. A Salmond appearing to be amongst those pushing for an earlier vote, no doubt causing an additional headache for the First Minister.

Whilst the political world remains unstable and uncertain, normal politics and activity continues and this week we were fortunate enough to arrange a visit for an MSP to visit one of our clients trout farms’ near Brechin and help celebrate a group of Primary School pupils winning an online maths competition.

So not creative but at least I avoided any Burns puns!

This post first appear at PubAffairs.