THERE might seem little point in Nicola Sturgeon repeating her plea for Scotland to remain in the EU single market in her options paper today since the UK Government has rejected it in advance. Chancellor Philip Hammond made very clear that the Government will not entertain any special Scottish deal. It’s a red, white and blue Brexit, and there’s no place for a Saltire.

The Article 50 negotiations will be conducted by the UK Government as the member state, and it isn’t about to let Scotland get in the way. Neither, it has to be said, is there any indication that the European Union would negotiate independently with Scotland over membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), however much sympathy there is the the European parliament for Scotland’s plight.

Moreover, the timing seems strange. If today’s options paper is the most important constitutional proposal to be put to the Scottish people since devolution, then it seems odd to publish it in Christmas week when voters are more interested in shopping than the complex dynamics of sub-state trading protocols. If it is effectively the declaration of the next independence referendum, as Alex Salmond seems to believe, it might have been wiser to wait until the nation’s mind isn’t befuddled by booze from Christmas parties.

So what is the point of today’s exercise? Cynics might suspect it is to avoid dealing with the presentational consequences of the plan being comprehensively rejected by the UK Government. But it also smokes out the Scottish opposition. The paper forces Labour and the Liberal Democrats to explicitly reject or endorse the First Minister’s attempts to remain in the European Single Market, which they refused to do in last month’s Holyrood debate.

The First Minister’s demands appear to be two-fold: she wants the UK to devolve sufficient power to Holyrood to allow it to negotiate a treaty keeping Scotland in the EEA, rather like Norway. Norway is not in the European Union but it is in the European single market (ESM). A number of federal governments in the EU have the powers to sign treaties, though not on the scale of the EEA/ESM.

But her second objective is to ensure that, even if Scotland leaves the single market, Holyrood receives powers over responsibilities like agriculture, fisheries, environment, immigration, competition policy and potentially VAT. This is the so called “Brexit bonus” that some Unionists have been talking about. The former civil servant, Professor Jim Gallagher, believes that Scotland could achieve federal status if these responsibilities are added to Holyrood’s existing powers. He agrees that immigration should be one of them.

She is right to do this. There is no guarantee that Scotland will get full responsibility for the laws repatriated from Brussels after Brexit. Westminster will accrue them by default and will have to actively devolve them thereafter to Holyrood. Will the UK Government willingly hand over the funding of EU agricultural support – worth £445 million? Will Scotland be allowed to dictate fisheries policy for the entire UK? We saw in the Supreme Court hearings that the UK Government does not believe Scotland has any legal rights to be consulted in the Brexit process under the supposedly “statutory” Sewel Convention.

These are highly complex, head-scratching issues. Many in the SNP would rather the First Minister dispensed with all these distractions and just went all out for another independence referendum, which some believe is there for the taking. But the First Minister is intensely cautious. She wants the best deal for Scotland in or out of the EU/EEA and doesn’t want to find that, behind her back, the UK Government uses Brexit to bring Holyrood to heel.

Moreover, the shifting sands of Brexit make it very difficult to know the context against which any separate Scottish arrangement might work. We now learn from the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, that the UK might remain in the free trade customs union that preceded the single market. Brexiters used to rule this out because it would leave the UK effectively subject to EU laws on trading standards and tariffs.

Brexit remains as big a mess as ever. No-one has any idea what the shape of Britain’s relations will be with the EU after Article 50 is finally tabled in March. The Scottish Government can at least claim the distinction of being the first to offer some kind of a plan. It’s on the table. And now we can all get back to the serious business of eating and drinking.