Theresa May expected to tour UK in effort to forge Brexit consensus

Anushka Asthana Political editor
Theresa May and David Davis will consult key business figures on the forthcoming negotiations. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Theresa May is planning a tour of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in an attempt to build consensus before she triggers article 50 and embarks on the formal Brexit process, the Guardian understands.

It has been suggested that the prime minister and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, will also meet key business figures to discuss Britain’s approach to the EU negotiations.

Government figures have claimed there was always a plan to reach out to all parts of the United Kingdom, including responding to the Scottish government’s Brexit white paper, in the final two weeks of March before embarking on talks with the EU27.

In parliament May confirmed there were a “number of processes that will take place” before she invokes article 50 at the end of March.

May used a statement about the European council meeting in parliament to question the timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum on Monday, intensifying tensions between the UK and Scottish governments.

The prime minister said she was determined to retain a strong United Kingdom as she accused the SNP leader of “constitutional gameplaying with the future of the UK”.

She told colleagues that she had been working with the devolved administrations and was listening to their proposals, triggering jeers from the SNP politicians.

The prime minister responded by saying: “This is not a moment to play politics, or create uncertainty or division. It is a moment to bring our country together, to honour the will of the British people and to shape for them a brighter future and a better Britain.”

After Sturgeon’s warning that she planned to hold a referendum between the autumn of 2018 and spring of 2019, May stressed that retaining a united UK was a priority.

“There is much that binds us and I don’t want to see anybody doing constitutional gameplaying with the future of the UK,” she said.

Sturgeon made her announcement on Monday following widespread speculation – which Downing street did not stamp out – that article 50 would be triggered on Tuesday as soon as the Brexit bill completed all parliamentary hurdles. The Scottish first minister saw that as confirmation that May was not planning to consult the Scottish government any further.

The SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, pressed the point in parliament, claiming that the news after Sturgeon’s speech that article 50 would be triggered later in the month represented a delay.

He asked if the additional timing meant the prime minister would stick to her pledge to seek a “UK-wide approach”.

Sources have claimed that May was always going to wait until the end of March to fire the Brexit starting gun, with plans to use the next two weeks building better consensus across the country and in different sectors.

In parliament, May said she was planning to represent the whole of the UK including Scotland in those EU talks, before adding: “The most important single market for Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom.”

Inside Downing Street, there is a sense that the Scottish first minister had deliberately chosen a timetable that she knew May would not accept.

The window of autumn 2018 to spring 2019 means there could be a referendum before the EU negotiations are complete and a trade deal has been agreed.

In Westminster, the prime minister welcomed the fact that the Brexit bill had successfully completed its passage through parliament, and said it would now “proceed to royal assent in the coming days”.

May said that meant the government remained on track to meet her article 50 timetable. “This will be a defining moment for our whole country as we begin to forge a new relationship with Europe but also a new role for ourselves in the world. We will be a strong, self-governing, global Britain with control once again over our borders and our laws,” she said.

She was supported by Conservative backbenchers who had supported Brexit, including Jacob Rees Mogg who cited a Lords report that said Britain had “no legal obligation to pay any money whatsoever” to the EU in order to leave the union.

Conor Burn claimed that a strong EU was in the best interests of Britain while a “strong, united, United Kingdom” was in the best interests of the rest of Europe. May agreed arguing that there was much that “binds” the four UK nations together.

Bernard Jenkin added that the question of single market membership was one of the UK government and not its Scottish counterpart.

But others were more sceptical including Emma Reynolds, a Labour MP on parliament’s Brexit committee, who asked the prime minister to set out what deal could possibly be worse than crashing out of the EU without any agreement.

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