By Kathleen Nutt

Political Correspondent

SCOTLAND’S former Constitution Secretary has told how a Conservative minister described Boris Johnson’s Government to him as a “madhouse being run by the inmates” during no-deal Brexit discussions.

Michael Russell, the SNP president who stood down as an MSP last year, made the revelation in a candid interview with the Institute for Government published at the end of last week.

He is among former ministers from the devolved nations who took part in the series reflecting on their careers and describing working relationship with their UK counterparts.

Mr Russell referred to the unnamed senior minister’s remarks to him as the two men took a break from a Brexit meeting.

It was made following a previous meeting when a second unnamed Conservative minister whispered words of encouragement to Mr Russell after he had spoken critically during a heated discussion with UK colleagues about the Brexit plans.

“The Johnson Tories, willingly or unwillingly, were absolutely on the hook of Brexit. Those who weren’t true believers, or who weren’t riding the tiger for reasons of ambition, were terrified of those who were pursuing it,” he recalled.

“They thought their entire political futures probably did depend on feeding the beast. And you went on feeding and in the end the beast ate them, but they went on doing that.

“And that beast – the Brexit beast – hated the very idea that Westminster was not sovereign in all things, and could not bear to be gainsaid by the devolved governments.”

He added: “There were little cameos. I remember, I won’t say who he is, but I remember one of the older style of ministers coming up to me at the end of an early JMC [Joint Ministerial Committee] meeting, in the Exchequer Room, you know, the room that has the exchequer table in the middle.

“Just as he went past me – [the meeting] had been particularly fractious and I had been particularly argumentative about the issues – just as he went past me, he turned and said very quietly: ‘Keep going, we need you.’

“And another one. I remember going off to the loo again, I think in the basement of the House of Commons, where we used to have these awful no-deal meetings, which were just absolutely grim, [a senior UK minister] turning to me as we went into the toilet and saying ‘it is a madhouse, run by the inmates’. About his own colleagues.

“You know, there was a huge, huge dissatisfaction but [also] a fear among many prominent senior Tories that they could not oppose what was happening.”

EU relationship

MR Russell went on to state his disappointment that the UK Government under Theresa May did not back the position proposed by the Scottish Government to give Scotland a closer relationship to the European Union in a similar arrangement to Northern Ireland.

The plan was put forward in the 2016 paper Scotland’s Place in Europe, and in follow-up documents, but was not supported by the Conservative Government.

He said he believes the EU would have seriously considered the arrangement had it been put forward by the then Prime Minister. “There could have been a Northern Ireland-style protocol arrangement for Scotland, which would have been possible had the UK chosen to negotiate for it. There is no doubt about that,” he said.

“The failure to achieve that was entirely because the UK ruled it out at the very beginning and would not countenance negotiating for it at any stage. It is clear that had they placed that on the table as an issue in the negotiations there are ways in which it could have done so and we know that the EU would have considered it seriously.”

Mr Russell had a long career in the Scottish Government serving under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond’s reign

HIS career included five years as Education Secretary under Salmond, before being reappointed as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe by Sturgeon, serving in the role from 2016 to 2018.

He was Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations from 2018 to 2020 and then Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External affairs from 2020 to 2021.

The IfG asked him to compare the working styles of the two First Ministers. “In terms of style, yes, a very different style. Alex didn’t interfere often but when there was something that he was concerned about, by God you knew about it. I mean, he got very concerned about it,” he said.

“And you just had to be aware of that, that you could go for ages and ages and ages without him showing the slightest interest in what you were doing, and then there would be something that he was ringing you about every 10 minutes.”

He added: “Nicola is a much calmer individual, but she is very clear about what she wants and what she doesn’t want.

“ But on the other hand, you know, my own relationship with her over the years has generally been good.

“We’ve known each other a long time and you know, she listens. Alex used to listen, but I have to say I think he listened less as time went on. He also became more remote and harder to talk to. Nicola will take time to make a decision. She is thoughtful and wants to consider all the angles.

“I enjoy working with Nicola, which I still do in my role as SNP president … it’s not that we haven’t had disagreements but we’ve been able to, particularly on independence and the constitutional issues, find common ground to work


Brief encounters

DURING the interview, Mr Russell describes being “Gove’d”… [Michael] Gove would be charming to your face and would then go out and brief savagely against you”.

He also said he experienced “nothing but contempt for devolution from the Johnson Government, expressed at every level even by the territorial secretaries of state”.

In a separate interview in the series, Jeane Freeman, Scotland’s former Cabinet Secretary for Health, said the UK Government “simply don’t understand [devolution] and they have paid no attention to it”.

Former Northern Ireland justice minister Clare Sugden said the UK Government’s approach to Brexit has left us “all screwed” while former NI finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir complained working with the UK Government was “demoralising, depressing” and “wasteful of my time”.