The prime minister will meet Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland on Monday at the start of the week in which she will trigger Britain’s departure from the EU, and argue that the four nations of the UK represent an “unstoppable force”. Theresa May is to hold talks with the first minister for the first time since Sturgeon demanded a second independence vote in the wake of the EU referendum and for the last time before triggering article 50 on Wednesday.
Before the meeting she will make a speech stressing both her global, outward-looking ambitions for the country and her faith in the union. The prime minister will tell staff at the office of the Department for International Development (DfID) in East Kilbride that their work shows how Britain is a “kind and generous country” and that when the nations of the UK work together, “there is no limit to what we can do”.
May is visiting Scotland as part of a tour of all four UK nations before she formally triggers Brexit, starting the two-year EU withdrawal process. The article 50 letter to the EU announcing the beginning of the withdrawal will be followed by the publication of a white paper on Thursday on the “great repeal bill”, one of the key measures that will give legislative effect to Brexit.
Sturgeon believes May’s Brexit negotiating stance is so hostile to Scotland’s interests that she has called for a second independence referendum and has publicly demanded permission from Westminster to schedule a vote before the Brexit process is completed.
Downing Street sources said that May would not budge from her previously stated position that “now is not the time” for a second vote when the two leaders meet on Monday.
But in her speech May will talk up the case for the union, citing DfID’s work as an example of how the nations of the UK can achieve more together than apart. “UK Aid is a badge of hope for so many around the world. It appears on the side of buildings, school books, medical supplies and food parcels in some of the toughest environments and most hard-to-reach countries on the planet,” she will say.
“And it says this: that when this great union of nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – sets its mind on something and works together with determination, we are an unstoppable force.”
She will also argue that Britain’s aid spending shows “we are a big country that will never let down those in need” and that the UK will continue to play a global role as it leaves the EU.
The two-year Brexit negotiations will define her premiership, but the difficulties she faces were underlined by an article in the Financial Times by Michel Barnier, the European commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, saying that a “no-deal scenario” is a “distinct possibility” and that this would have “severe consequences” for the UK and for the rest of the EU.
“Severe disruption to air transport and long queues at the Channel port of Dover are just some of the many examples of the negative consequences of failing to reach a deal,” he said. “Others include the disruption of supply chains, including the suspension of the delivery of nuclear material to the UK.” Barnier also claimed that there would have to be an agreement on what Britain owed the EU early in the process if the talks were to proceed smoothly.
May received warning of another potential obstacle on Sunday when Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said his party would oppose plans in the “great repeal bill” to give ministers sweeping powers to rewrite laws with minimal interference from parliament.
The white paper due on Thursday will set out how the government intends to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and transplant laws that have force because of the UK’s membership of the EU into domestic law. It is expected that this will involve extensive use of “Henry VIII powers” – laws allowing ministers to change primary legislation (government bills) using secondary legislation (orders that go through parliament with little or no scrutiny).
Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Corbyn said Labour would oppose handing ministers such extensive powers when the House of Commons voted on the great repeal bill. “We’re not going to sit there and hand over powers to this government to override parliament, override democracy and just set down a series of diktats on what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “We’d be failing in our duty as democratically elected parliamentarians if we did that.”
Corbyn said the fact that the constitution allowed these sorts of powers to survive was “a wondrous thing”, but “they’ve got to stop”. “I don’t think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one,” he said. “He was all about essentially dictatorial powers to bypass what was then a very limited parliamentary power. We need total accountability at every stage of this whole Brexit negotiation.”
Ministers argue that they need the powers because leaving the EU will require a vast body of law to be rewritten and many of the changes that will be made to primary legislation using Henry VIII powers will be technical.
What happens next
Monday Theresa May will visit Scotland where she will give a speech to staff at the Department for International Development office in East Kilbride before meeting Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, and Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, will both give speeches setting out their parties’ conditions for Brexit.
Tuesday MSPs will finish their debate on the motion calling for a second independence referendum. Sturgeon is expected to speak in the debate, and the motion is almost certain to be passed.
Wednesday The government will trigger article 50. A letter, about seven or eight pages long, will be handed to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, and May is expected to make a statement to MPs.
Thursday The white paper on the “great repeal bill” will be published, with David Davis, the Brexit secretary, likely to give a statement on it in the Commons.