Theresa May lays down independence vote challenge to Nicola Sturgeon

Severin Carrell Scotland editor
Theresa May speaking at the Scottish Tory conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty

Theresa May has signalled a tougher line on Scottish demands for greater devolution after Brexit, laying down a clear challenge to Nicola Sturgeon to call another independence referendum.

The prime minister told the Scottish Conservative party she would fight against any further decentralisation of power which meant the UK became “a looser and weaker union”. “We cannot allow our United Kingdom to drift apart,” she said.

In a marked escalation of her attacks on the first minister’s demand for greater autonomy for the Scottish parliament after Brexit, May said there would be a strict limit to any extra powers and spending.

“We must avoid any unintended consequences for the coherence and integrity of a devolved United Kingdom as a result of our leaving the EU,” May told the Scottish Tory conference in Glasgow on Friday.

Senior figures in the Scottish National party accused May of an attack on the central principle of devolution, only a year after Holyrood’s independent status had been guaranteed in legislation.

Predicting it would lead to a backlash in Scotland, Alex Salmond, the former first minister, told the BBC: “What she announced today was a power grab. She’s actually proposing that if Brexit goes ahead, the powers that should come back to Scotland [from the EU] – on fishing, farming and a range other issues – she’s going to retain them at Westminster, because she likes the look of the Scottish economic zone.

“That’s a fundamental attack on the very principle and foundation in statute of the Scottish parliament of 1999, which said specifically that anything that wasn’t reserved to Westminster should be run in Scotland.”

May again dismissed Sturgeon’s demands for Scotland to be given special access to the EU single market, knowing this would force the first minister to follow through on her threat to press for a referendum once article 50 was triggered later this month.

Sturgeon, who refused to respond in person to May’s speech, is poised to reveal as soon as article 50 is invoked whether she will introduce a second referendum bill to Holyrood and ask for the legal authority from Westminster to stage it.

Despite widespread expectations the first minister would do so at the SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen, it is understood she will instead make the announcement in a separate speech to avoid it being seen as partisan and party political.

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s deputy leader, told BBC Daily Politics the consequences of May’s stance were very clear. “If the UK government cannot reach an agreement with the Scottish government to protect our interests in Scotland, there will be another referendum, yes,” he said.

David Mundell, the Scottish secretary, made clear after May’s speech the UK government had decided on its tactics by insisting there would need to be formal negotiations with Sturgeon’s government to agree the date and wording of any referendum before those powers would be granted.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, hinted this week that Downing Street would insist on staging any referendum after the UK formally left the EU in 2019 to ensure the Scottish electorate knew what it was voting for.

Mundell said the UK government was adamant there was no case for a referendum, but added: “We know what the process is for a referendum. There would have to be the equivalent of the previous Edinburgh agreement, but that position isn’t on the table. [Sturgeon] has not made a formal request to the UK government.”

Despite the SNP’s grip on power in Scotland and the party’s popularity amongt voters, Downing Street believes Sturgeon is in a weak position on independence.

Just 35% of Scottish voters support a referendum before Brexit, and support for independence sits at 45%, below the majority Sturgeon has previously insisted she needs before calling a fresh poll.

May said her central goal was to protect “the deep and fundamental strengths” of the union. “Ours is not a marriage of convenience, or a fair-weather friendship, but a true and enduring union, tested in adversity and found to be true.”

Her stance signalled a widening gulf between the pro-UK parties over new powers for the Scottish parliament, with Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats calling for a federal UK.

She implied the entire devolution settlement of 1998, which set up the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, was now up for renegotiation, risking a row with the Scottish government.

May said the original devolution arrangements were founded on membership of the EU. That meant arrangements for agricultural funding and fisheries policies designed for the EU were no longer relevant, suggesting the UK government would seek centralised control over spending in those areas.

“The UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998 without any thought of a potential Brexit,” she said. “The essential common standards which underpin the operation of a single market were provided at the European level.

“As we bring powers and control back to the United Kingdom, we must ensure that right powers sit at the right level to ensure our United Kingdom can operate effectively and in the interests of all of its citizens, including people in Scotland.”

Asked if May was challenging Sturgeon to stage a referendum, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said: “Nicola Sturgeon has pulled every lever and tried every single way to weaponise Brexit, to try to split up the union. We’re saying that public opinion hasn’t moved [on independence] and the public don’t want it. I for one am going to fight it every step of the way.”

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