YOU are entitled to be perplexed by the political optics.

When Rishi Sunak was parachuted into Downing Street with a mop and an apologetic expression, we were told that conciliation was now the name of the game. Muscular Unionism was out, and a new, more constructive spirit would rule relations between London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

During the whole spell of her premiership – a lifetime in lettuce years – Liz Truss made good on her commitment to “ignore” the First Minster. Truss was unable to find five minutes during her 44 days in office for a quick chat with either Nicola Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford in Wales. Boris Johnson came to avoid bilateral meetings and the Scottish press, sending Michael Gove instead. These were small but significant symbols of their attitudes to political life outside Westminster.

Sunak, by contrast, made the point of speaking to both on his first day in office. This was the first move in what was spun in the media as “resetting ties” between the UK Government and its devolved counterparts, apparently signalling a new spirit of conciliation and shift away from the imperiousness which characterised relations under Truss, Johnson and Theresa May.

This culminated just days ago in Sunak’s first trip to Scotland. He held smart-casual audiences with star-struck Tory MSPs, toasted some marshmallows, and got monstered on telly by STV’s political editor Colin Mackay. So much, so familiar. But it is difficult to imagine any of his recent predecessors agreeing to an “informal and private working dinner” with Sturgeon, accompanied by the mandatory grip and grin with rictus smiles all round.

We all know it is always a matter of time before these political olive branches snap. Neither side has any real long-term interest in cooperation. The political differences between them are too profound, and both thrive politically by mobilising antipathy to the other. Empty rhetoric about “strengthening our working relationship” has tumbled out of the mouths of almost all of Sunak’s predecessors before giving way to brutal realpolitik and renewed hostilities with the devolved administrations – but it usually takes more than a week.

Days after this apparently friendly encounter with the FM, Sunak despatched Alister Jack into the House of Commons to announce the unprecedented use of Section 35 to block the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. I suppose you’re no kind of politician if you can’t break bread with someone one night and screw them over the next – but you don’t need terrifically sensitive political antennae to find this combination of messages stunningly incoherent.

Entertainingly, what would become section 35 of the Scotland Act was dubbed “the governor-general clause” by Michael Ancram in 1997. The Tory MP was concerned this “draconian power” “could lead to dramatic confrontation between the parliament and government in Edinburgh and the parliament and government in London.” It took a while to materialise – but here we are.

By activating Section 35, Sunak and Jack have chosen the path of greatest resistance to questioning the legalities of the Gender Recognition Bill. If they believed the Bill actually exceeded Holyrood’s devolved competence, the right destination for a legal challenge would be the courts. Section 35 works differently.

The “governor-general power” ignores the ordinary emphasis on whether or not the Bill falls within Holyrood’s powers, and allows the Secretary of State to permanently block devolved legislation which falls squarely within the parliament’s competence. The Scotland Act is clear about this. In using Section 35, the Secretary of State is exercising “a policy control or veto over what legislation is enacted by the Scottish Parliament, even although it is within its competence”. As Ancram suggested back in 1997, this decision is taken against a legal backdrop and is susceptible to judicial review – but is pre-eminently a political call.

This was a war of choice for the UK Government – and if its aim is to foster a more conciliatory relationship with their devolved counterparts, then Jack is almost the last politician in the world you would pick for the job. Jack is one of those Scottish Tories who feels like he has phased out of his proper timeline. Having made his millions renting wedding marquees to the general public, as a politician Jack evokes the spirit of an 18th or 19th-century aristocrat who spends his free time musketing diverse forms of wildlife and governing a minor Indian province.

Haughty, patrician, and effortlessly condescending – Jack puts you in mind of all those Tory gentlemen down the centuries who have been indispensable to the exercise of power in British public life, from generation to generation, yeah unto the Middle Ages. Hence all the gags this week about viceroys: Jack was fashioned by nature for this kind of role, and plays it with evident relish.

CONSTITUTIONAL taboos are taboos like any other. Once broken, their magic has a habit of fading. As Jack presented his reasons for torpedoing the bill in the Commons, it got me wondering: what is the potential reach of this newfound enthusiasm for this unprecedented veto?

You might have noticed: seven years on, the United Kingdom is still “getting Brexit done”. This involves ripping out retained EU law root and stem, reheating Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” deal with the European Union to address continuing tensions in respect of Northern Ireland, and despatching the trade secretary abroad to try to persuade foreign capitals that they want to strike new accords with northern Europe’s least successful economic model.

By my count, the UK has reached just over 70 free trade deals with other countries since 2016 – but the overwhelming majority are rollover terms which replicate the existing access traders enjoyed within the European Union.

Truss – sorry to remind you – signed a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand in December 2021. Trumpeted by the Government and the Tory media as a triumph for Britannia unchained – the detail of the deal didn’t withstand scrutiny. Its terms have been savaged by one of her former Cabinet colleagues George Eustice as a failure that “gave away far too much for far too little in return”.

In return for full liberalisation of beef and sheep imports, the UK secured diddly-squat for domestic producers, screwing over British pastoral farmers and potentially under-cutting animal welfare standards. And Truss got her headlines, I suppose.

But look forward. Say that – as the general election draws closer – a renewed desperation for good news stories about Brexit and the British economy grips the top of Tory Party. Say that Rishi Sunak’s government decides that being able to announce a trade deal with the Americans might save his bacon – or at least remove one barrier to the freer distribution of Gloucester’s old spot on the international market. The Australian experience has taught world capitals that London is now an easy mark, and they can afford to drive a hard bargain against an adversary, weak at home and abroad. Say Sunak decides to sell the family silver to get the deal over time.

This trade-off and sell-out might take different forms, any of which might appeal to Sunak’s Atlanticist soul, from accepting laissez-faire drugs regulation to turning a blind eye to minimum production standards for consumer goods, trusting the ordinary British consumer decide how much chlorinated chicken, lead or high fructose corn syrup they’d like to ingest. Any deal like this has the real potential to cut across Holyrood’s powers, and the real potential to re-engage the thus dormant force of Section 35.

This exposes yet another imbalance in the devolved framework. If Jack thinks a Holyrood bill “adversely affects the operation of the law as it applies to reserved matters”, he can stymie it with a strike of his pen – however much support the proposal marshalled in Edinburgh. But what if MSPs have reasonable grounds to believe a trade deal struck by Kemi Badenoch or one of her colleagues would adversely affect devolved powers over animal welfare, say, or drug safety standards, or the environment?

Then, you guessed it – the Scotland Act gives UK ministers the upper hand, prioritising their international missions over longstanding devolved competence, enabling the Secretary of State to become the enforcer of whatever kind of free trade deal UK ministers are prepared to sign, knocking flat any legislation coming out of Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast they believe to be incompatible with their merchant adventures abroad.

This may not trouble you if you are intensely relaxed about this kind of pan-UK rule-from-the-centre but it underscores the astonishing frailty of the devolved frameworks once the UK Government or parliament decide to exert themselves. Given a broad interpretation, the power used by Jack this week has even greater potential to clip Holyrood’s wings.