When the news broke on Christmas Eve that Boris Johnson and his negotiating team had agreed a Brexit trade deal, there was a mood of celebration in government. This was accompanied by the relief of much of the public, as a dreaded no-deal Brexit finally seemed to have been avoided.
Keir Starmer’s confirmation that the Labour Party is going to support the deal in Parliament should mean that the agreement passes easily. Boris Johnson will feel that he has overcome a challenge that many felt was insurmountable, and can finally relax.
However, this is no time for complacency. Already we are seeing signs that the divisions over Brexit are far from over. Early signs suggest that the Brexit deal will cause tension between different regions of the UK. This will inevitably raise questions over whether Brexit will prove to be the catalyst for the breakup of the United Kingdom.
Wales has expressed concerns over the deal, but the most significant threat comes from Scotland, with the SNP already having announced that it will vote against it in the Commons. Ian Blackford, the party’s leader in Westminster, described it as a ‘disaster for Scotland’.
The main area of concern for Scottish ministers is fishing, which was one of the final issues to be ironed out in negotiations. Boris Johnson admitted that Britain was forced to compromise on fishing quotas in order to achieve a deal.
The fishing industry is vital to the Scottish economy, with the independence campaign in 2014 claiming that 20% of the EU’s overall catch is taken from Scottish waters. While the SNP’s opposition will not prevent the deal from getting parliamentary approval, it may boost nationalist sentiments in Scotland.
Meanwhile, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been polling higher than any other UK leader in her response to Covid-19, while Scottish independence is enjoying its widest ever lead in polls.
There is little prospect of a push for independence amidst the current crisis, with the response to the pandemic occupying the attention of key figures in both the Scottish and British governments at present.
However, once a semblance of normality resumes, Scottish leaders will surely attempt to use their popularity and popular frustration to push for a second independence referendum. In the hypothetical scenario that the Scottish people voted to leave the UK, the British government would face an unqualified crisis.
Apart from losing the lucrative economic benefits of the fishing and oil industries in Scotland, the UK would appear increasingly isolated on the world stage. Having just cut ties with mainland Europe, the last thing the UK can afford is another messy divorce with a neighbour.
And, given the problems encountered in negotiating the Irish border, ministers will be reluctant to approach the issue between Scotland and England.
The next challenge facing Johnson’s government, alongside the ongoing response to the pandemic, may be to placate the anger of devolved administrations. With Holyrood, the Stormont Assembly, and the Welsh Assembly all due to scrutinise his deal, the Prime Minister may have to make yet more compromises to pacify his own country.
This could mean offering more powers to devolved governments in order to persuade them against more radical action. Certainly, given their performances during the pandemic, it is difficult to argue that the governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland do not deserve more responsibility for their affairs.
This is yet another challenge for the UK government to negotiate in a baptism of fire for Johnson in his first half of his term.