A NO-DEAL Brexit would be “the most scything possible rupture” and claims the UK could trade on bare-bone international rules are “fantasies”, the former head of the Brexit department has said. 

Speaking in Edinburgh tonight about Brexit and the Union, Philip Rycroft also warned the “Brexit frenzy” was driving it all before it, with the Brexit mindset “dismissive” of the implications for the UK.

He said the country was “in the grip of a political and constitutional crisis the like of which the UK has not experienced for decades or, arguably, in its peculiar dimensions, ever”. 

He also questioned whether the UK even had a future.

He said: “We live in parlous times. The UK, once a by-word for stable and broadly civilized politics, is a country bitterly divided. Political time has collapsed. We are trapped in the prism of the present, obsessed with the next spin of the political wheel.”

He added: "We are not even at the end of the beginning. If we come out, the challenge intensifies as the UK comes to terms with its new place in the world. If we stay in, there can be no return to the status quo ante, either in our relationship with the EU or for politics within the UK.

"The world has changed, irrevocably, forever. On any score, it will be years before we have a clear sense of what the UK’s future will look like, or if, indeed, the UK has a future."

Mr Rycrift, who previously worked for the Scottish Office and Scottish Governmen, said he was speaking in a personal capacity after his "liberation" following 30 years as a civil servant.

He blamed Theresa May for a “series of early, precipitate decisions that pushed the UK negotiating position towards a sundering of ties with both single market and customs union”.

He said that after the “Lancaster House redlines” laid down by the then Prime Minister in January 2017 the “irreconcilables in the European Research Group”, the group of Leave Tory MPs once led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, had left the UK with “no room for manoeuvre”.

Mr Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017 until March this year, made the comments in a speech at the David Hume Institute at Edinburgh University, where he is now an Honorary Professor.

He said: “It is extraordinary that over three years since the EU referendum, we still simply do not know how we will leave the EU or even if we will leave the EU. Who could have imagined, when we trudged to the polling booths a little over three years ago that now, in September 2019, we would be witnessing a titanic battle between the UK Parliament and the Executive to prevent a no deal Brexit, the most scything possible rupture?”

He said the process so far had been “the Brexit foothills” and “the real climb lies ahead”.

Discounting no-deal claims a post-Brexit UK could rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, he said: “At some point, deal or no deal, the UK Government will have to enterprise a negotiation with the EU on our future relationship. Whatever the fantasies of the no dealers, the mutual trading and security interests of the UK and the EU are too important not to be ordered in a formal, structured relationship.”

Mr Rycroft also warned Brexit had weakened support for the Union, and that the Remain votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland “cannot be gainsaid or massaged away”.

He said: “Different parts of a four-part Union spoke differently, when the people, not Parliaments, were sovereign for a day. This reverberates through all that has been said and done.”

He said a federal UK may be the best way to preserve the UK, and if the next Prime Minister, “whoever that might be”, put it high on their agenda, the Union might “founder”.

He said Brexit had “soured” and added a layer of “almost exponential complexity” to relations between the governments in Edinburgh and London.

That meant the public had seen “two governments pulling in wildly opposing directions”.

He cited problems with engagement, Brexit preparation and the redistribution of powers in devolved areas being repatriated from Brussels - the source of SNP claims of a power grab. 

He said of the latter: “This path was rocky, leading to the first overriding by the UK Parliament of the refusal of a legislative consent motion by the Scottish Parliament. But there was a genuine issue to resolve here. The UK internal market is real and it matters.

“The difficulty was the way in which the manner of doing it played into not just the deep distrust between the governments but also the different conceptions of the devolution settlements.

"What for Whitehall ministers looked like an explicable, even if in its original conception heavy handed, assertion of UK Parliamentary sovereignty to protect the UK internal market, appeared to the Scottish Government to be an abrogation of the basis of devolution.”

He said future trade negotiations between the UK and the rest of the world meant there would be numerous flash-points, as the detail would reach “deep into devolved territory”.

For example, “at what point does a Scottish Government commit to legislate to ban the sale of hormone-fed beef in Scotland, on health grounds?” he asked. 

He went on: “Simply put, the working through of Brexit will put immense pressure on the relationship between the two governments, at a practical and at a political level. The issues at stake will be an order of magnitude more complex than those dealt with hitherto, and so the scope for disagreement, misunderstanding and grievance will grow in proportion. 

“All this when the system of inter-governmental relations is already under huge stress.

“What happens if Brexit is postponed or cancelled? This is even more uncertain territory. While some of the practical governance consequences of Brexit would to a large extent be avoided, other impacts would be highly unpredictable.”

He added: “What does all this mean for the future of Scotland in the Union of the United Kingdom? It [is] almost certain that the pressure on the current settlement will only grow, in governance and political intensity.

"That pressure is already translating into a weakening of support for the current dispensation.”

He said the change in politics away from left-right to the Leave-Remain one and identity politics had led to “extraordinary” shifts, such as most Tory members now ready to put delivering Brexit ahead of preserving the Union.

He said: “Who would have thought that a majority of members of the party traditionally most committed to the preservation of the concept of the United Kingdom, of conserving its constitutional and territorial integrity, would be seemingly willing to ditch a 300 year old Union, where the ties at every level run so deep, in order to come out of a 40-year old Union, mainly economic in its intent and purpose? It is frankly almost impossible to imagine a similar situation occurring in any other European country.”

He said one way to keep the Union together could be to bring the devolved governments “earlier and deeper into the counsels of the UK Government”, although that would require trust that is currently in short supply.

He said the status quo of sour cross-border relations “doesn’t feel sustainable”

He warned: “Remember, the debates and tensions that will come down the post-Brexit track will be in multiples of what we have seen to date. How would a state of constant dispute interact with an already febrile public opinion, in England as in Scotland? Risky, perhaps, to allow that experiment to run, particularly in the run up to the May 2021 elections in Scotland.”

He went on: “The times are of course not propitious for the sort of serious, consensual process that might lead to the development of a coherent set of options for the future relationship between the Scottish and UK Governments and for Scotland in the Union. 

“The Brexit frenzy sweeps all before it.

“Done in the name of UK Parliamentary sovereignty, the drive for Brexit is self-evidently not one that prioritises the compromises and flexibility that successful Unions require.

"In many ways, the Brexit mindset appears to be peculiarly blind to the territorial implications of leaving the EU, dismissive of the implications for this Union and seemingly unconcerned about the local economic impact, including on those parts of England that have hauled themselves out of the mire of collapsed old industry on the back of manufacturing as part of integrated European supply chains.”

He concluded: “As things stand, people in Scotland really only have two imagined futures before them, one the dreamland of an independent state, the other an extrapolation of a squabble-some present into a dystopia of increasingly acrimonious disputes between two governments, bent on different paths.That does not have to be it. 

“Hard as it may be in these difficult times, people in Scotland and in the rest of the UK deserve a richer debate, a recognition that there are other choices, that out of the shattering Brexit mayhem could emerge a different dispensation for the UK. Leaving one Union does not have to lead to the foundering of another. But, unless the next Prime Minister, whoever that might be, puts this high up their agenda, that might be their legacy.”