David Shiels: Would No Deal lead to Irish unification?

The topic is being discussed – including at Cabinet – but that in itself is not convincing evidence that such a major change is imminent.

Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.

Would a No Deal Brexit lead to Irish unity? The possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom triggered by a chaotic Brexit was reportedly discussed at Cabinet last week, with one minister telling colleagues that the UK was “sleepwalking into a border poll.”

The reports have upset the DUP, angry that the constitutional question has been brought into the discussion at this stage. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said it was a revival of “Project Fear.” After coming on board with the Brady amendment to give the Government more time to renegotiate the Brexit deal, the DUP’s lines on the backstop have hardened in the last few days.

Rightly or wrongly, there is a sense that by talking up the prospects of a No Deal border poll, the Government is feeding into a narrative set by Sinn Fein. From the Government, the message to the DUP seems to be “support our deal or take your chances with a referendum.” For a party which already sees the backstop as something which undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom, the fact that the Government is thinking along these lines is disturbing.

Meanwhile, the interventions by Sir John Major and Tony Blair have also gone down badly with Unionists, the two ex-premiers having recently spoken about the impact of a No Deal Brexit on the peace process. (It should be remembered that the joint intervention by the former Prime Ministers during the 2016 referendum was claimed to have encouraged an increase in Vote Leave support in Northern Ireland).

Of course, some will say that the DUP are getting what they deserve. Brexit was clearly a provocation to Irish Nationalists and the party should not be surprised that talk of Irish unity is now on the agenda in a way that it was not before the referendum. There is a sense that the party has trapped itself into supporting a hard Brexit – though the recent intervention by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP Chief Whip, suggests that the Party acknowledges the dangers of a No Deal Brexit and wants to avoid that outcome.

Although the Irish Government has been keen to downplay the possibility of a border poll – no doubt aware of Unionist sensitivities over the backstop – there are plenty of commentators and politicians in Dublin who are contemplating unity in a way they had not done before. Even John Bruton, the very moderate ex-Taoiseach, has pointed out that “By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union.”

Despite these conversations about Irish unity, there are no convincing signs that a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is imminent. True, a number of opinion polls have shown increased support for Irish unity because of Brexit, with more people supporting a united Ireland in that context. The possibility of a No Deal Brexit shows the most dramatic effect, and one opinion poll by the Belfast-based LucidTalk polling company – cited by Bruton – suggested that in the circumstances of No Deal 55 per cent of people would probably or certainly support Irish unity.

It is always difficult to poll for hypothetical situations, however. There is a debate about whether demographics in Northern Ireland favour Irish unity in the longer term – but this would be happening irrespective of Brexit. The most recent actual test of opinion in Northern Ireland – the 2017 General Election – showed that that voters continued to follow traditional patterns of behaviour. The DUP’s vote went up by just over ten per cent on the previous Westminster election, while Sinn Fein’s vote also went up by just under five per cent.

Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him [or her] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” Some may contend that these circumstances have been met, since the Unionist parties are now polling under 50 per cent at Westminster and Assembly elections.

It could equally be argued that the Nationalist parties would have to win a clear mandate for a border poll before one is called. Much may depend on the position taken by the non-aligned Alliance Party, and whether its anti-Brexit position would lead it to endorse a border poll in the circumstances of No Deal (though there is no suggestion that it would do so). There is also a view, taken by Lord Bew, that the Government could actively use a border poll to determine support for the Union.

Clearly, Unionists must proceed with caution, and they should be prepared for all possibilities. As I have argued before, the fact that all the border constituencies have returned abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs is a sign of considerable dissatisfaction with the existing governance arrangements in Northern Ireland, and this has been exacerbated by Brexit. It is right that the Government takes seriously the concerns of Nationalist opinion.

It may also be that if a Brexit deal is secured, the constitutional question will be taken off the table again.  For as long as No Deal remains a possibility, it is unhelpful for Ministers to speculate about a border poll – particularly as there seems to be little strategic thinking behind this approach. Raising the question is not only counterproductive in terms of bringing the DUP onside, but also adds another element of uncertainty to the current debate in Northern Ireland.

James Bundy: A Department for the Union would strengthen our United Kingdom

It would be responsible for promoting the British brand right across the country – and there is a lot to promote.

James Bundy is a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the national chairman of Conservative Future Scotland, and the former chairman of the St. Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association.

Our proud Union has been the envy of the world for over 300 years. Our monarchy, our courts, our universities and our parliamentary democracy are known as some of the finest institutions the world has ever produced. Our Union, however, is under grave threat. Scottish nationalists are doing their utmost to tear away the fabrics that bring our union together. Northern Ireland feels like it is slowly moving into the hands of reunification with the 26 counties of the Republic. Poor Wales is never mentioned in the national media unless its sports teams are doing well. The debate surrounding our departure of the European Union has brought an emergence of English nationalism which would shamefully break up our United Kingdom if it ensured a clean break from Brussels.

As Conservatives and Unionists, we must do all we can to protect, defend and strengthen our United Kingdom. We must recognise the greatest threat to our Union and do all that we can to respond to it. A patriotic campaign which promotes British culture is required, but we must also come up with practical solutions to ensure that our Union is suitable for the future. The creation of the Department for the Union in Whitehall – first advocated by the MP for Stirling, Stephen Kerr – is an approach which fulfils both these requirements.

Leaving the European Union is the greatest threat to our Union today, but our departure will also save our United Kingdom in the long-term. This sounds like a contradictory statement, but it is not. Membership of the European Union has saw our Union slowly drift apart and this would have continued if we decided to remain. British culture has been evaporating bit by bit and has been replaced by a European culture which embraces secularism and republicanism. The drastic drop in those who believe in Christianity, the decline of Christian moral values and the growing calls for a future republic all demonstrate this culturally change.

Without our wonderful and unique British culture, the United Kingdom would stand for very little, if not nothing. Our Union, which used to be the envy of the world, would be known as simply another European country. Pride in being British would diminish much further and people would desperately seek identity of any sorts – be it Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Mancunian, Scouse and so on. An environment like this would have played right into the hands of the nationalist movements. Our decision to leave the European Union brings an opportunity to halt the dilution of our culture, creating a level playing field in the long-term battle of identity. This battle is one we must win to preserve our United Kingdom.

After we leave the European Union, we may end up in a scenario whereby European standards are not the minimum standards. The SNP have already cried ‘power grab’ when the UK Government announced plans to maintain common standards in fishing and farming across our United Kingdom. The terminology ‘power grab’ is absurd, as these powers lay in Brussels – not Holyrood – but it does highlight that there is potential for a constitutional crisis. Some Unionists have argued that this is why we must remain members of the European Union, but no country should rely on an international organisation to maintain its internal market. Rather than hide and wish the problems go away, we must confront the challenges that are before us and do so convincingly.

A Department for the Union would allow the Government to address both the cultural and constitutional aspects of our United Kingdom. The department would be responsible for promoting the British brand across the country – and there is a lot to promote. A permanent member of the UN Security Council, being of the sixth largest economy in the world, the second biggest military budget in NATO, membership of the Commonwealth, a country that meets the UN’s aid spending target, and an arts and sporting sector which pushes above its weight, to name a few. The new department would be responsible for cross-Governmental cooperation between Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and our Overseas Territories. Protecting our internal market and ensuring that all parts of our United Kingdom work together post-Brexit rather than against each other.

As Unionists, we must do all that we can do to make people feel proud to be British. As Conservatives, we must do all that we can do to ensure that our United Kingdom functions properly. Our departure of the European Union was a cry from the British people for national renewal. As Conservatives and Unionists, let’s deliver this national renewal by creating the Department for the Union.

Our survey. May’s Deal. A majority of Party members would support it were the UK able unilaterally to leave the backstop

But the majority for such a solution is slender. And well over two in five respondents reject the deal entirely.

  • When we last asked a roughly comparable question, Theresa May’s Brexit deal had the support of 26 per cent of our panel members.  That’s now down to 13 per cent.  Doubtless part if not most of the reason is its defeat by a record margin in the Commons this week.  The Prime Minister may believe it can be revived.  This finding suggests Party members believe that it can’t.
  • Well over two in five respondents say that the deal is not acceptable – rejecting it entirely.  The total is not that far off half.
  • None the less, two in five replies also say that the deal would be acceptable were the UK to have the right to leave the backstop unilaterally.  Add the 40 per cent concerned to that 13 per cent, and May wins a majority for such an amended deal among our members’ panel.  But one almost as tight as the referendum result.

WATCH: Tomlinson sets out the case for opponents of the Withdrawal Agreement

“I am a serial loyalist. I have never rebelled against the Government… and I do so with a heavy heart, but with a clear head.”

Click right-hand button for full-screen.

WATCH: Penning says he will not back any agreement which includes the backstop

“I served in Northern Ireland, and I lost good colleagues – to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that doesn’t protect the Union.”

Click right-hand button for full-screen.

The first department to need boosting post-March. The Treasury? Business? Transport? No: Northern Ireland.

The challenge to “our precious union” will be as much constitutional as economic – Deal, No Brexit…or No Deal especially.

Liz Truss wants to merge three smaller departments into a bigger one in the wake of the spending review.  Business, Culture and Transport would be folded into a new Ministry of Infrastructure.  B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S lives!

More prosaically, there is a danger, in weighing up the idea – the Chief Secretary believes bold measures are needed to raise productivity – of confusing three different though linked aims.

The first is saving taxpayers’ money through more efficient administration.  Amalgamating departments can help to achieve this end.  But it is always possible to find savings within the present set-up.  For example, Jeremy Hunt cut staff costs in one of those departments, Culture, by the best part of half, during his term as Secretary of State under the Coalition.

The second is restructuring departments to deliver political priorities.  Again, this shouldn’t be Mission Impossible.  However, it can go wrong.  The classic example is Harold Wilson’s Department of Economic Affairs, a “department of long-term go” created to balance the Treasury, the “department of short-term stop”.  Led by George Brown, it fought the Treasury.  The Treasury fought back, under Jim Callaghan.  Short-term stop is still with us and long-term go left very quickly.

The third is signalling priorities through ministerial appointments.  Consider the department at the head of the Chief Secretary’s list, Business.  Gordon Brown galvanised it by sending in a big hitter, Peter Mandelson.  David Cameron responded by appointing another as his shadow – Ken Clarke.

In that particular case, structural changes were made.  (Mandelson’s new department gained responsibility for universities.)  But these aren’t always desirable or even necessary.  By way of illustration, we offer a post-March 29 example.

If Theresa May’s deal eventually passes the Commons, Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have different regulatory regimes, assuming the backstop eventually kicks on.  Some argue that the two parts of the UK will potentially have different customs arrangements too.  This aspect of the deal has knock-on implications for Scotland, and therefore the Union, as a whole.

In the event of No Deal, it is possible that support for Irish unity and/or Scottish independence will grow faster than would otherwise be the case.  There is no way of knowing.  But Unionists should be alive to the possibility.  Relations with Ireland would certainly be tested in these circumstances, with an obvious read-across for Northern Ireland.  Whatever happens, we have paid for neglecting them.

In short, the latter will need a senior Tory player as Secretary of State when the next Cabinet reshuffle comes.  That person will need to know the Irish political scene, be on civil terms with the DUP and have a feel for how the island ticks.

Our suggestion is David Lidington.  He won’t be top of the DUP’s Christmas card list, but the party knows him well from his time as David Cameron’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, and vice-versa.  As a former Europe Minister he is familiar with the Irish side of the political equation: indeed, he has already been operating, in effect, as Theresa May’s emissary to Dublin.

Meanwhile, it follows that his replacement in the Cabinet Office would be tasked, as Lidington now is, with establishing how the whole UK can best work post-March 29.  In the event of No Deal, the challenge will be obvious – testing the UK Governance Group, presently charged with constitutional matters, to its limits.  In the event of No Brexit, it will be more subtle, but still present.

Our reflex is to send for Michael Gove when new thinking and action are required.  Perhaps we yield to it too readily.  And in any event, he can’t be everywhere.  Who else fits the bill?  Required: energy, brains, eloquence, seriousness and a passionate attachment to the Union.  These qualities are not in long supply.

The bold solution would be to send for a rising politician who has all five.

Rory Stewart is a Scot representing an English borders seat who is across the independence issue, having campaigned against it fervently in 2015.  He would not, repeat not, be Scottish or Welsh Secretary – any more than Lidington is now.  But a feel for what happens north of the border in particular would come in very useful.

These changes could be made without any structural change at all.  Or else DexEU could be folded into a new Department of Constitutional Affairs, with Stewart in charge, Chloe Smith staying on as the junior Minister, and perhaps a Scottish MP coming in too.

In which case, Steve Barclay could run the Cabinet Office.  Or Oliver Letwin return to do so.  Or Dominic Raab, if you prefer.  What’s that, you ask? B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S?  Well, it’s a long story.  Our theme today is shorter: mind “our precious Union”, post-March 29.

Sheila Lawlor: Even with an exit clause from the backstop, this deal would be unacceptable

Its freedom to prosper, to make and judge its own laws, for its people ‘to take back control’ over how or by whom they are governed – all these will be lost for ever.

Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia and the author of Deal, No Deal? The Battle for Britain’s Democracy.

The confidence vote has kept Theresa May in office for now. But the Withdrawal Agreement may yet prove her nemesis.  It is that ‘deal’, the EU’s and hers, that almost did for her last week. So far, it has brought Britain’s government to a state of paralysis, prompted political turmoil, constitutional chaos and a level of uncertainty and disruption near-unprecedented for the best part of a century, as well as spooking the markets.

Unless it is put right, it will do, in the pejorative sense, not just for the Prime Minister, but for Britain too. An end date to the backstop, legally binding under international treaty, is needed, otherwise the UK may be obliged to remain indefinitely in an EU customs union and under its law, whilst Northern Ireland will be treated as a separate state, UK (NI),  with an even greater burden of EU law imposed than the rest of the UK.  So much is widely recognised – now, at least verbally, even by May herself. Few, however, recognize all the implications.

Consider, for example, state aid, on which under the backstop Brussels will rule. This, the EU claims, covers certain tax rules and fiscal choices, which mean that tax breaks would still be under the EU’s control. So if the UK wants to award tax breaks to start ups or to promote home farming or fish processing enterprises or otherwise stimulate the economy on leaving, it will probably be prevented from doing so under ‘state aid’ rules. Moreover, so long as there is the threat of an indefinitely long backstop, it is is hard to see how the UK will be able to resist the demands of EU negotiators to include many of its intrusive conditions in the future economic agreement.

But suppose for a moment that the Prime Minister in the end manages to extract from Brussels a cast iron guarantee that, if the backstop is invoked, it will end on a date written into the Withdrawal Agreement, and at that date the UK will leave the Customs Union with the EU and no longer be bound by any related corpus of EU law.

The victory would be a hollow one unless there is also there is also a fixed, end date for the Withdrawal Agreement’s other legal obligations. Without that, the UK’s constitution and its law will still, under international treaty, be subjugated to the EU in a number of areas, indefinitely, backstop or no backstop. Its freedom to prosper, to make and judge its own laws, for its people ‘to take back control’ over how or by whom they are governed – all these will be lost for ever.

Far from taking back ‘control of our laws’ or respecting ‘the integrity of the United Kingdom’, the claims made on its behalf in the Prime Minister’s initial letter to voters and since, the Agreement and its Northern Ireland Protocol fail to do either, and not just on the backstop. Were ministers to read a smattering of the 585 pages of the proposed legal text, they would see how serious the consequences of the deal will be across whole areas of national life. 

In fact, freedom from EU law is anything but guaranteed.  Article Four of the Withdrawal Agreement gives EU law supremacy over domestic law in a number of areas in respect of the entire Withdrawal Agreement and not just for citizens’ rights, as a House of Lords briefing paper and a senior MP have made clear. Article Four, which provides for direct effect and supremacy, is not limited to the transition period but will continue to apply to those provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement (and of EU law to which the Agreement refers) once the UK has left the EU at the end of the transition period. Thus the status of EU law in the UK at the end of the transition is not clear.

This is just one example of the uncertainty that awaits the UK if the Withdrawal Agreement is accepted, even with modifications to the backstop. A careful reading of its near 600 pages would discover more. Why accept it? Even the Prime Minister can find no reason better than that is the only deal, so that the other options are, she says, no Brexit or leaving without a deal. In fact, no Brexit is not an option: the people voted clearly in 2016 and Parliament has legislated for the UK to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.

But leaving without a deal simply means leaving without agreeing to the special terms that the EU wishes to impose, but following the legal agreements which the UK has made. It leaves open, not just the certainty of being able to trade, as we  already do very successfully with most of the world, on WTO rules, and the opportunity to sign free trade agreements globally and reaching a Canada Plus style trade deal with the EU. Indeed, the UK will probably be in a much better position to negotiate an ambitious long-term trade deal with the EU if it leaves cleanly, without the baggage that any sort of divorce deal will inevitably impose.

Esther McVey: How to deliver Brexit from here. We must prepare properly for no deal.

When I tried to focus these concerns by calling for a vote to see if this deal did indeed have the agreement of Cabinet, opposition crumbled – and my colleagues fell silent.

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

Resigning from Cabinet is often described as one of the most difficult decisions that a politician can make, but for me it was entirely logical.

From the outset, it was clear that the Withdrawal Agreement failed to honour the outcome of the EU referendum, secure our long-term economic independence and take full advantage of the UK leaving the constraints of the EU. How could I remain in the Cabinet knowing that?

I could not, hand on heart, sign up to a deal that sells the UK short. So keeping my job paled into insignificance compared to the enormity of the effects that this bad deal will have on the future prosperity of our country. Its effects will last far longer than any of our careers; it will shape the UK’s future for generations to come.

Concerns about the agreement around the Cabinet table were palpable, and the legal advice from Geoffrey Cox was damning.  This was the one chance that the Cabinet had to avert the UK accepting a bad deal.  But when I tried to focus these concerns by calling for a vote to see if this deal did indeed have the agreement of Cabinet, opposition crumbled – and my colleagues fell silent.

In politics, trust is paramount.  Once it is lost you cannot get it back.  Leaving the EU on the terms set out in the Withdrawal Agreement would see us lose public trust on the biggest issue of our age.  And we were risking that trust on an agreement which had zero chance of passing a vote in the Commons.

Even now, I find it hard to believe that my colleagues could not see that this deal was doomed from the outset. Since I left the Cabinet, I have watched with disbelief as events have unfolded – like everyone else.  The attempts to sell this fundamentally bad deal through a full Ministerial tour and PR campaign actually saw opposition harden.  The Government was left with no option this week but to pull the meaningful vote to avoid a defeat of historic proportions.

In her statement on the delay to the vote, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to provide ‘reassurances’ on the backstop for the Northern Irish Border.  This was a major misreading of the concerns which I and many others have over the backstop and of the deal which will see us hand over £39 billion with zero guarantees over a future trade agreement.

The Prime Minister has now won a confidence vote of Parliamentary colleagues, but it is clear there are significant concerns over what remains a bad deal for the UK.  However, rather than using this moment to reassess the Government’s approach to the terms of our exit, the Prime Minister continues to talk about seeking further reassurances.  Mere reassurances fall far short of addressing what is wrong with this deal. We need fundamental changes, including to the legally binding agreement.

The Prime Minister must now do what she should have done when it was clear that the deal she presented to Cabinet did not honour the outcome of the referendum, failed to secure our long term economic independence and risked missing the huge opportunities of leaving the constraints of the European Union.

She must use the clear domestic concerns about the agreement to push for two fundamental changes

  • That the backstop is ultimately unacceptable and must be removed and,
  • That the £39 billion must be linked to a future trade agreement.

The clock is ticking, so we simply do not have the time to pretend that, with a little bit of tinkering, this fundamentally bad deal can be made acceptable to the British people.  The more time we waste on an agreement which cannot meet the wishes of both sides, the more likely it is that we will default to an abrupt departure at the end of March.

t is better to focus our time, resources and energy on preparing a planned Brexit now and to come up with a clear plan for what will follow.  To continue with a charade that tweaking here and there and tacking on assurances will somehow make this flawed agreement better risks the Government failing properly to prepare for what comes next.

With little over three months remaining, we must pursue these two conditions with the EU and, if they are rejected, then we must accept that it has not been possible to secure a deal which satisfies the interests of both the UK and the EU.  In the event of this outcome, we must focus all our resources on securing an orderly exit from the EU.

Moving to a planned Brexit should follow these recommendations to ensure that it is as orderly as possible in the time that we have available:

  • Identify the pragmatic and tactical agreements based upon mutual interest which we can make with the EU and bi-laterally with individual member states to minimise disruption to both parties upon the UK’s exit from the European Union.
  • Put in place the contingency measures that we can begin to implement now, giving clarity to people and businesses. Immediately review all no deal planning conducted to date and scale up planning in key areas before 29 March to allow the UK to mitigate known areas of impact.
  • Negotiate a ‘no deal implementation period’, like the one in place for a deal situation, and pay the EU our membership fee during that time (circa £10 billion a per year net).
  • Identify investments in new systems, such as those in operation at the border which need to be implemented, scaled up or brought forward to support an orderly Brexit.
  • Begin immediate discussions with the Republic of Ireland on the operation of an open border post-Brexit, since both the UK and the Republic have committed to no hard border even in the event of no deal.
  • Start an immediate study of the policy changes needed to ensure the long-term competitiveness of the UK, including the reduction of burdensome regulations on business and, where required, divergence from the EU, while maintaining alignment in areas of national interest.
  • Issue immediate reassurance to all EU nationals residing in the UK to remove any doubts over their future and rights once the UK has left the EU.

Moving to a planned Brexit will allow us to reallocate the £39 billion to implement contingency measures, introduce new systems to ensure long term success and provide a cushion to those areas of the economy which need more time to adjust to the change.

It will also allow us to move beyond the discussion over the flawed backstop arrangement and look for practical solutions for the Northern Irish Border.  The EU has cynically used the backstop to leverage a deal which will allow them to keep the UK tied into their rules indefinitely.  Shifting the focus to a planned Brexit would give a clear focus on the practical arrangements that authorities on both sides of the border need to take to keep the border open.

The current Withdrawal Agreement does not fulfil our vote to leave the EU, is not in our economic interests and, ultimately, its inherent flaws mean that it increases the chances of the UK defaulting into an abrupt no deal Brexit.

It is increasingly clear that an alternative approach is required.  Some have suggested that Norway, ‘Norway for now’, Norway Plus or EFTA/EEA membership could present that alternative, yet this would keep us even more closely tied to the EU and would genuinely ensure that we remain in the EU in all but name. This is not delivering on the referendum and would destroy the public’s faith in democracy.

Without agreement from the EU that it is willing to remove the backstop and accept that the £39 billion payment must be linked to a future trade agreement, a planned and orderly Brexit as outlined above is the only option which prioritises our economic interests, is achievable within the time frame left and which actually delivers on the public vote to leave.

Henry Hill: The strange Scottish Conservative rebellion against the Withdrawal Agreement

If you’d had to guess which of their MPs would rebel on the deal, Lamont and Ross wouldn’t have made the top six.

Readers of this column will be aware that the Scottish Conservatives have shown signs of strategic confusion in the run-up to the (now postponed) ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s withdrawal deal.

This culminated in David Mundell and Ruth Davidson both threatening to resign if the Prime Minister gave way on the EU’s demands for differential treatment for Northern Ireland… only to perform a screeching u-turn when she did, in fact, give way after all.

Aside from a nasty barb about ‘carpet baggers’, the justifications offered to support this shift (to the extent that it was acknowledged as a shift at all) were deeply unconvincing. Whilst talk of a ‘union state’ might have served as a reason not to worry about the backstop in the first place, it doesn’t justify dramatically changing one’s mind on it in the space of a month.

Given the paucity of plausible reasons for the change of heart, and the sheer unexpectedness of their initial threats to resign, one possible explanation does suggest itself: pitch-rolling.

By putting down markers about their staunch opposition to the deal on unionist grounds, and then backing it, Mundell and Davidson could use their unionist bona fides to shield May and shut down her unionist critics.

That’s only conjecture, of course, but it is worth bearing in mind as we consider the next strange development in this story: the surprise rebellions of John Lamont and Douglas Ross against the Withdrawal Agreement.

Why is this a surprise? Because both MPs are on the ‘Davidsonite’ wing of the party. Lamont used to be her chief whip in the Scottish Parliament, and was one of the architects behind the Scottish Tories’ now-disintegrating pooled-staffing arrangement at Westminster. Ross, meanwhile, has been talked about in some quarters as her preferred successor, at least before he got into Parliament.

All the evidence suggests that this tendency is backing the withdrawal deal. Adam Tomkins MSP, a constitutional law professor and close ally of Davidson, has been sent out to claim that the unionist case against the backstop has been ‘destroyed’ (spoiler: no it hasn’t) and Paul Masterton, another ally and the MP who helped coordinate the Holyrood powers-grab during the passage of the Withdrawal Act, has joined in Mundell’s attacks on “English nationalists” playing at unionism.

Yet all of a sudden Ross Thomson, who had until now been ploughing a very lonely furrow as the sole Scottish Conservative rebel on the Withdrawal Agreement, finds himself joined not by any of his colleagues who have previously supported European Research Group manoeuvres (Colin Clark, Alister Jack, and Stephen Kerr to name but three) but by these two loyalists.

If you subscribe to the ‘cock-up’ view of the Mundell u-turn, this is evidence that this wing of the Scottish Tories is losing its strategic cohesion in a really remarkable way.

But there are also a couple of reasons not to discount the ‘conspiracy’ version: that this is a second round of pitch-rolling, with Lamont and Ross preparing to ‘do a Mundell’ in order to give whatever form of words the Prime Minister comes back with some credibility. Neither declared their hand until after the Government had pulled the ‘meaningful vote’ on Monday morning, nor has either been explicit about what changes they would need to see in order to support the deal.

Whatever the truth of it, however, this decision poses sharp questions for their colleagues. Opposition to the deal on unionist grounds can no longer be presented as a mere flag of convenience for committed Brexiteers.

WATCH: Dodds says Democratic Unionists are “abiding by our side of the bargain”

“We entered into the confidence and supply agreement in relation to supporting Brexit on the basis of our shared priorities.”