Why the latest Brexit bust-up between UK governments could be the biggest yet

Brexit has been the cause of dispute between governments over the years

It was less than a fortnight ago when the leaders of the four governments of the United Kingdom vowed to work together more closely to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

But now, they seem to be as far apart as ever with the Welsh Government saying trust is at “a low ebb”. 

Relations have often been tricky between the different governments over the years and in a lot of cases, Brexit has been the cause of dispute. That much shouldn’t be so surprising, particularly when the governments are led by different political parties.

However, what’s happened since the Internal Market Bill was published is one of the biggest break downs I’ve covered. All of the devolved parliaments are expected to vote against giving the bill their approval which the UK Government is requesting. 

It’s just a political convention and not a legal requirement that those approval votes, known as Legislative Consent Motions, are acted upon, but they always had been until the EU Withdrawal Act earlier this year. 

At that time, successive ministers in the UK Government stated clearly that, yes they would ignore the refusals of consent on that occasion, but that this was a one-off in extraordinary circumstances and would never happen again. Well, it looks like it will happen again, with the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland recommending refusal to the Internal market Bill and the UK Government showing no sign of backing down. 

The Welsh Government described the Internal Market Bill as a "direct attack on devolution"

It’s a fact that the Internal Market Bill constrains the powers of Welsh and Scottish Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly - the bill’s preamble itself acknowledges that. But the UK Government argues that those constraints bring a wider benefit to the nations.

However there’s also a bigger political dynamic at play which I’ve written about before: the Conservative government has adopted a newly aggressive unionism in its dealings with the devolved nations. 

There’s been considerable grumbling from backbenchers and ministers over the years that Conservative governments have too often been guilty of an approach that was branded "devolve and forget."

In other words, there's an increasingly strong view amongst Welsh Conservatives in Westminster that it was a mistake for successive Tory governments to take a hands-off approach in devolved areas such as health, education and particularly in big infrastructure projects.

They think that to make the case for the union, UK Governments need to act more even if it oversteps previously respected boundaries.

Tory MPs led by Aberconwy’s Robin Millar have banded together to form the Conservative Union Research Group, modelled on Jacob Rees Mogg’s European Research Group, to ensure that ministers don’t adopt that "devolve and forget" approach.

Boris Johnson’s government is determined not to and is showing its determination in a number of areas, including in the Prime Minister’s repeated pledges to build an M4 relief road and the Welsh Secretary’s attack on Cardiff politicians who are “fixated on the purity of the devolution settlement.”

It’s a gamble that people who are broadly supportive of the union of the United Kingdom won’t care who delivers big and successful projects - as long as they’re delivered. 

The risk of that gamble is that, in Scotland, overriding the still-popular Scottish National Party will translate into increased support for independence and that could - although that’s a big caveat - feed back into similar support here in Wales. 

We’ll soon see. Elections will be held in the devolved nations in May.