It’s time the Tories put jobs and living standards first in Brexit talks

Five years ago former Prime Minister David Cameron delivered one of the most significant and fateful political speeches in the UK’s recent history.

He announced that if the Tories won the 2015 general election, they would hold a referendum on EU membership.  

Mr Cameron also said he believed “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union”.

He gambled that he could negotiate a new deal with the EU, appease the hardline Brexiteers in the Tory party and get the backing of the country to remain in the EU.

We all know what happened next.

Fast forward to today, and not only does Scotland face being dragged out of the EU against our will, but the Brexit process has emboldened a now powerful Westminster Tory faction – one which perhaps never fully embraced devolution, and now sees an opportunity to rein in the Scottish Parliament.

It beggars belief that more than a year and a half after the referendum, the UK government is not only still unable to say what kind of relationship it wants with the EU, but has also failed to produce any meaningful economic assessment of the different possibilities.

This isn’t some abstract debate – although I can understand if many people feel that way.

The Brexit deal will have fundamental consequences for how our businesses trade with Europe, for the goods that we buy – and even our ability to study and go on holiday on the continent.

The UK government’s failure to produce any meaningful economic analysis of how Brexit could affect us is a shameful dereliction of duty. And it’s one of the reasons that we have decided to produce our own analysis for Scotland.

In a major paper published last week, based around impartial economic analysis, we looked at the various options.

To be clear – no matter how it happens, Brexit will have a profound, long-lasting and damaging effect on our economy and our society.

Our analysis shows that by far the best option, short of remaining in the EU, is to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union.

The figures are stark. A failure to remain in the Single Market or to secure a free trade agreement would cost Scotland’s economy £12.7 billion by 2030, when compared to full EU membership. That means a loss equivalent to £2,300 per year for each person in Scotland.

By comparison, staying in the Single Market – the option called for by the Scottish Government – would reduce GDP by 2.7 per cent – equivalent to £4 billion, or just under £700 per head. This is still a dramatic cost of leaving the EU, but it is the least worst option.

To stress again – this is impartial analysis. Given the enormous cost of a hard Brexit that it reveals, it’s easy to see why the Tories are so reluctant to publish any analysis of their own.

What is not easy to understand, however, is why the Prime Minister remains so determined to put Tory dogma ahead of everything else – no matter the economic cost.

It’s not just the UK government’s relationship with the EU that has been in the spotlight – their relationship with the devolved administrations is also being put under greater strain.

With powers exercised by Brussels obviously returning to the UK after it leaves the EU, in areas currently devolved – such as fishing and farming – the responsibility should automatically come to the Scottish Parliament.

There’s also no reason why in many other areas central to Scotland’s economy, additional powers cannot be devolved.

But far from the promises of the Leave campaign – and indeed Tory Scottish Secretary David Mundell – that a Brexit vote would automatically see ‘a bonanza’ of new powers repatriated from Brussels to Holyrood, we now face the very real risk of the exact opposite: the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved administrations being stripped of some of their powers.

Just last week the EU Withdrawal Bill left the House of Commons. It contains notorious provisions which, as things stand, would mean that all of these powers would currently go back to the Tories at Westminster – with no guarantee that they’ll be devolved.

When I first raised the issue of a power grab in this Bill several months ago, many people said I was wrong – but now, even the Scottish Tories admit that the Bill is not fit for purpose.

For months, the UK government promised that they would amend the Bill to ensure that the power grab elements were removed.

Well, that deadline has passed and they failed to do so.

Even though Scottish Tories are reportedly upset and embarrassed about this – it didn’t stop them meekly falling into line and voting for the Bill.

Frankly, time is running out – there are only around nine months left for the deal to be finalised.

It is time for the Prime Minister to stop listening to the discredited voices around her Cabinet table, and start listening to the overwhelming case for Single Market membership – to put country before party, and put living standards ahead of Tory dogma.

This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.