“Now is not the time for a second independence referendum,” said Theresa May, tilting her head to one side like a patronising Princess Diana and fluttering her eyelids over the shoulders of ITV’s Robert Peston into what she imagined was the hearts of the Scottish people. The Scots stared back impassively.
“Then when is the right time?” enquired Peston reasonably.
“Now is not the time.”
Peston tried again. “Can we be clear about when you do think is the right time?”
“Now is not the time.” A virus had reinfected the Maybot and she was stuck on repeat.
“Yes, I get that, but...
“Now is not the time,” said the prime minister, unaware she was turning her bad week into a worse one.
“So what you’re saying is...”
“Now is not the time.”
Over in Holyrood, the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was only too happy to agree. Now was not the time to hold a second referendum. But sometime late next year when the Scots had had a chance to see how badly they were going to be screwed over Brexit would be.
The promised UK consensus that the prime minister had offered on any Brexit deal had already been relegated to a few text messages: “Soz. We R leaving the single market” and Sturgeon didn’t trust Westminster not to sell her country even further down the river.
First minister’s questions in Scotland is an altogether more enlightening affair than prime minister’s questions down south. Not least because serious questions get asked. And answered. It helps that the two main adversaries, Sturgeon and Conservative Ruth Davidson, are rather sharper than their UK counterparts – not difficult for Davidson as Jeremy Corbyn hit a new low at PMQs the day before by even forgetting to ask a couple of questions. It’s also a major plus that the rest of the chamber manages to listen without sounding like a Bash Street Kids school reunion. When each speaker has finished talking, there is a round of applause. Or silence. It’s disconcertingly polite.
Davidson opened by asking whether Sturgeon thought it was the right time to call for a referendum when Scottish schools were in such a mess. The first minister eyed her up. A civil question deserved a civil answer. Yes, there were problems in schools and she was doing her best to deal with them but that didn’t stop her multi-tasking in the national interest.
“Is it not true, though,” said Davidson, “that independent forecasts suggest independence would put Scotland £11bn in the red?”
This was Sturgeon’s moment to let rip. Ever so nicely, of course. The reason Scotland was running a deficit was because it had been under the control of the Westminster purse strings for so long. Surely it was time for Scotland to see if it could do better on its own, rather than risk being made even worse off by a hard Tory Brexit? And if they couldn’t then at least there would be the consolation of knowing the pain was self-inflicted?
Davidson kept going. She rather had to, as she’s the last politician standing in the UK between Scotland remaining in the UK and declaring a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Unlike in the last independence referendum, Labour is now dead in the water in Scotland and the appearance of May on the campaign trail would send voters running into the arms of the SNP.
“I choose to put this parliament first,” said Davidson.
Bad move. Sturgeon quickly reminded her opposite number that she had a far higher share of the vote than Theresa – even taking into account the dodgy counts in Thanet and elsewhere – and had been elected on a manifesto that had promised a second referendum. “So I issue a direct challenge,” she concluded. “If next Wednesday, the Scottish parliament votes for a second referendum, will the Tories respect the will of this parliament?” Sod it. A party that lived by “The Will of the People” could also die by it.
Back in London, Theresa experienced a glimmer of hope. She may have just made a second independence referendum inevitable. But at least she’d given herself an even chance of delaying it until the Scots were completely penniless.