Theresa May has faced down Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence, accusing the SNP leader of “tunnel vision” and rejecting her timetable for a second vote.
The prime minister said that the Scottish leader’s plan to hold a second referendum between the autumn of 2018 and spring 2019 represented the “worst possible timing,” setting the Conservative government on a collision course with the administration in Holyrood.
The first minister’s intervention had been timed a day ahead of when May had been predicted to trigger article 50, but No 10 later indicated that it would not serve notice to leave the EU until the end of the month. The confirmation of the later date, in the aftermath of the speech, fuelled speculation the prime minister had been unnerved by Sturgeon.
Buoyed by three successive opinion polls putting support for independence at nearly 50/50, Sturgeon said that she had been left with little choice than to offer the Scottish people, who voted to remain in the EU, a choice at the end of the negotiations of a “hard Brexit” or living in an independent Scotland.
“The UK government has not moved even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement. Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence,” the first minister said, claiming that any pretence of a partnership of equal nations was all but dead.
Downing Street denied that it had ever planned to fire the starting gun on Brexit this week, but critics pointed out that ministers had failed to deny the widespread suggestion in media reports over the weekend. The Guardian understands that May will now wait until the final week of March to begin the process, avoiding a clash with the Dutch elections and the anniversary of the Rome Treaty, and giving the government time to seek consensus in different parts of the country.
“We have been clear that the prime minister will trigger article 50 by the END of March. I’ve said ‘end’ many times – but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters quite strongly enough,” May’s official spokesman said.
Despite Downing street’s insistence that Brexit was always likely to begin in late March, Whitehall sources had indicated to the Guardian that May was ready to trigger article 50 on Tuesday as the Brexit bill cleared its final parliamentary hurdles.
The Commons overturned two House of Lords amendments that aimed to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and hand parliament a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal, as the government increased its majorities in both cases. MPs rejected the first on EU nationals’ rights by 335 to 287, a majority of 48. The second amendment on whether to hold a meaningful final vote on any deal after the conclusion of Brexit talks was voted down by 331 to 286, a majority of 45.
Responding to the vote, Lady Smith, the Labour leader in the Lords, said she would have fought “tooth and nail” to change the bill, but it was clear that MPs would not be persuaded. As such Labour backed the government in the Lords, resulting in the amendment on EU citizens being voted down by 274 to 135, with the other one falling by 274 to 118.
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, accused Labour of writing the government a “blank cheque” on Brexit.
May’s hope to focus on a positive start to Brexit negotiations was shattered as she was forced into a battle of wills with Sturgeon in a fight to preserve one of the first pledges as Conservative leader to fight to maintain the union.
The prime minister said that she had sought to work with Scotland on Brexit and that there was common ground, also claiming there was no appetite for a second vote north of the border. “The tunnel vision that the SNP has shown today is deeply regrettable. It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty,” she said, as she accused Sturgeon of “playing politics” with the future of the country. “Politics is not a game,” she added.
Sturgeon had accused the prime minister of thwarting Scotland’s desire for a special deal with Europe, saying she had refused to discuss full Scottish access to the single market. She also said the Conservative government had threatened heavy restrictions on the new powers for Scotland after Brexit made a second referendum all but inevitable.
Sturgeon’s challenge has dramatically increased the complexities and uncertainties of Brexit negotiations. The announcement effectively starts a two-year independence campaign that will overstretch the UK government and the civil service in Whitehall, threatening to undermine its negotiating capacity in Europe.
Tory rebels were frustrated that their demands for a final vote even if there is no Brexit deal were thwarted by No 10, despite other ministers being more open to the idea. But one MP said they had been reassured that the government is absolutely focused on getting a Brexit deal and avoiding falling back on World Trade Organisation rules. “They acknowledge that would be a disaster and a constitutional crisis leading to a general election,” the MP said.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, told colleagues that MPs and peers had made their arguments with “passion, sincerity and conviction” but said he was disappointed by the amendments.
Using emollient language meant to persuade peers not to cause any more trouble for the government, he said he wanted this legislation to remain “straightforward”, simply allowing the government to embark on the formal Brexit process.
“As we embark on the forthcoming negotiations, our guiding approach is simple: we will not do anything that will undermine the national interest, including interests of British citizens living in the EU.”
“And we will not enter the negotiations with our hands tied,” he said, suggesting the EU would be incentivised to offer a bad deal if it knew it could be rejected by British MPs.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the decision by MPs to overturn the votes as “deeply disappointing”. “We will continue to demand that the stress they, and British citizens living in the EU, are being put under is ended, and they are given the right to remain,” he said.
“Article 50 is being triggered because of the result of the EU referendum. But it is only the start of the process. Labour, at every stage, will challenge the government’s plans for a bargain basement Brexit with Labour’s alternative of a Brexit that puts jobs, living standards and rights first.”
Lord Wood, who has advised Labour leaders including Gordon Brown, said the prime minister in holding off triggering article 50 had made a mistake similar to his party back in 2007 when it failed to call an expected early election.
“Just as we actively encouraged speculation about an early election ten years ago, so she let speculation run and run over the past week about an imminent triggering of article 50. Then today, in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s preemptive strike calling for a second referendum, the prime minister’s spokesman was sent out to make the totally implausible claim that they had never intended to go for an early triggering of article 50 at all,” he said, arguing that it smelled of “tactical backfiring, confusion and chaos behind the door of No 10”.