Nicola Sturgeon is playing a high-stakes Brexit power game

Nicola Sturgeon is playing a high-stakes Brexit power game

It comes as no surprise to me that Nicola Sturgeon has overruled her constitutional minster, Michael Russell, and rejected the UK Government’s latest proposals for the gradual transfer of powers returning from Brussels to Holyrood.

The fact that the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has broken ranks from the previous close relationship with the Scottish First Minister and welcomed improved arrangements is unfortunate for Sturgeon, but she will live with it. Her Welsh double act provided some political cover – it allowed either party to suggest it was Downing Street that was being unreasonable, not Cardiff or Edinburgh. She must have anticipated, though, that her Welsh counterpart might eventually feel enough had been achieved.

For Sturgeon, however, this high stakes poker game is not about gaining powers for Holyrood; after all Sturgeon and her SNP loyalists are not actually interested in the hundred or so additional powers they might gain once they leave Brussels. They have always believed those powers should stay in Brussels and, were Scotland to be independent, would certainly be willing to trade them back to try and gain membership (although the EU would be wanting a price much higher than that).

Remember, Sturgeon’s administration is also the one that demanded more welfare powers, only having been granted them then asked for them to be held back for two years so the Scottish Government could get its act together (and it may yet need even more time).

No, what interests Sturgeon is not powers for devolution but creating the grounds for a further independence referendum by fomenting a grievance between the Scottish people and Westminster.

David Davis has, at the late time of writing this on Wednesday evening, let it be known he is willing to work through the night if it might secure a compromise agreement before amendments to the Lords must be submitted that would fix the deal. It may yet happen, but I doubt it.

What Sturgeon is probably more interested in is for any deal to collapse and then for Westminster to decide it will go ahead with its Bill to leave the EU without the consent of the Scottish Parliament – a consent the Prime Minister does not strictly need to obtain but which she would prefer for the sake of building a national consensus.

What will happen then is that Nicola Sturgeon will protest loudly that Westminster has overruled Holyrood and that devolution has been shown to be worthless and independence is the only valid arrangement. There will be a lot of sabre rattling as she seeks to determine what latitude she has to stir up more division, more bitterness and in this process win round doubters about the need for a second independence referendum.

There is even the possibility of the SNP at that point seeking to go further – and then moving to hold an illegal referendum without a Section 30 Order from Westminster giving Holyrood the necessary legal permission (as was agreed for the referendum back in 2014).

The SNP leadership and its more rabid element have been watching the Catalonia situation closely – with a good number of their MPs attending the illegal referendum last year. There is no doubt that some are tempted to push Westminster to breaking point and force Theresa May to prevent a further independence referendum in the hope that such a denial will raise temperatures and win the SNP more support. A Catalonia-style scenario should not be ruled out.

There are of course those in the SNP who fear such a course of action, but moderates are usually marginalised in such heated situations and if they dare to speak out will be accused of being traitors and Quislings.

This Brexit power transfer game is for high stakes, and the UK Government must face down Nicola Sturgeon at every turn by being reasonable, resolutely firm and thinking at least three steps ahead of her.