Theresa May’s right-hand man last night announced a major Brexit concession in an attempt to reassure Unionists that UK’s integrity would not be undermined by EU Withdrawal.
On a visit to Scotland, David Lidington, the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy, said the whole of the UK would retain close ties to the EU in the event of the Northern Ireland backstop being activated.
The concession, which is likely to anger the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party, was signalled by the Cabinet Office minister when he gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Europe committees.
During the committee meeting, Mr Lidington heard of Scottish Tory concerns that the Northern Ireland backstop would lead a “differentiated settlement” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Scottish Conservatives’ constitution spokesman told Mr Lidington that such an arrangement would be difficult from a “Unionist perspective” in Scotland.
Speaking after giving evidence, Mr Lidington indicated that Great Britain would align with the single market markets that would apply to Northern Ireland if the backstop comes into action.
The Northern Ireland backstop has been devised to as a safety net in the absence of a EU/UK to maintain a frictionless Irish border by keeping Northern Ireland in alignment with EU single market and customs union rules.
Mr Lidington said that if the backstop were used “GB will not diverge from the regime in Northern Ireland”.
Arguing that the arrangement was to provide reassurance to Unionists in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, he said: “You can describe it as a concession if you like. It is a way of trying to provide that reassurance to people that the commitment to the Union is very, very deeply felt. This is something she (the Prime Minister) cares about passionately.”
He added that Mrs May believed that avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland mattered for the “integrity of the Union as a whole”.
Mr Lidington said: “The reason she has given such importance to the Irish border in these negotiations is two-fold, one because peace is still fragile and the security of any infrastructure across the border would be a very grave risk. But also because the border is of huge symbolic importance, there is a real risk that any sort of border controls, cameras or anything like that weakens the assent of moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.”
Mr Lidington’s concession was welcomed by the Scottish Tories.
Tory constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins said: “This is a vital and welcome comment from Mr Lidington. There have been concerns that the separate backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland would leave to an unacceptable level of divergence within the United Kingdom.
“However, he has confirmed today that Great Britain, including Scotland, will align with the single market rules that apply to Northern Ireland if the backstop kicks in.
“It is vital that we maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom during the Brexit process and Mr Lidington’s comments today go a huge way to providing the assurance that this will indeed be the case.”
Mr Lidington also warned against holding a so-called People’s Vote or second referendum on the Brexit deal saying that it would fuel division and could lead to calls for a third EU referendum.
“I think a second referendum would be seen by a lot of those people as an attempt by the political elite to set aside a democratic verdict that they had found unwelcome,” he said.
“That would pose a risk of a radicalisation of a lot of those people into some sort of more populist positions. I look for example where we are now in a post Farage UKIP where Tommy Robinson is a standard bearer. I think the probable populist reaction to setting aside that 2016 verdict is likely to be more ugly than previous versions.”