9 July 2019
By George Parker
There is a “real risk” of the United Kingdom breaking up, with all four nations going their own way in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Theresa May’s cabinet has been warned.
David Lidington, the prime minister’s de facto deputy, told fellow ministers that the possibility of a disorderly no-deal exit from the EU was “sharpening” the challenge of the UK staying together.
Mr Lidington warned that the independence movement in Scotland posed a “significant and urgent political challenge”, which would increase if the Scottish National party secured a majority in the 2021 Holyrood elections.
In a cabinet document, sections of which have been seen by the FT, Mr Lidington said a recent increase in support for Plaid Cymru confirmed “we cannot be complacent about Wales’s attitude to the Union and independence”.
And in a stark warning about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, Mr Lidington pointed to demands for a “border poll” that could see the island of Ireland reunited, with moderates attracted by social liberalisation in the Republic. “There is a real and genuine conversation going on on the island of Ireland about a future border poll,” he said. “A no-deal exit, in which Direct Rule must necessarily be introduced, would sharpen this further.”
Recommended The Big Read Scotland: Brexit uncertainty revives independence debate Cabinet ministers listened in silence to Mr Lidington as he surveyed the state of the union, with its clear warning to a future prime minister — most likely Boris Johnson — not to jeopardise the “integrity” of the country.
Mr Johnson has acknowledged the risks by announcing that if he became prime minister he would also assume the title Minister for the Union, a nod to the perception that he is a highly divisive figure in Scotland in particular.
But the Tory leadership contest has further exacerbated tensions, with a YouGov poll saying that 63 per cent of the party’s mainly English membership would be content for Scotland to become independent as a price for Brexit.
Mr Lidington told the cabinet that recent surveys suggested the English were becoming increasingly indifferent to the Union, while in Wales, where demands for independence tend to be muted, the mood was shifting.
He said there was a growing perception in Wales that the UK government had failed to support key industries, warning that recent decisions by Hitachi to suspend work on Wylfa nuclear power station and Ford’s decision to close its Bridgend plant had fuelled that sentiment.
Mrs May last week announced a short review to see how the UK government could better explain its policies. Mr Lidington said all government policies should support devolution and require the interests of the Union to be considered at the outset.
Mr Lidington suggested improved “branding” on projects funded by the UK government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, bemoaning the fact that too often only the devolved administration’s logo was prominently displayed.
He also warned that a multimillion-pound “Scotland is Now” marketing campaign was ostensibly aimed at tourists, migrant workers and investors, but was “in reality aimed at domestic audiences, promoting the idea of Scottish distinctiveness and, implicitly, independence”.
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