Theresa May promises Scotland 'significant' extra powers as Sturgeon referendum timetable suffers blow

Simon Johnson
Prime Minister Theresa May (right) and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during their meeting in Glasgow earlier this week  - PA

Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50 has pledged a “significant increase” in the Scottish Parliament’s powers after Brexit as Angela Merkel dealt a damaging blow to Nicola Sturgeon’s independence referendum timetable.

The Prime Minister also told Donald Tusk, the European Council president, that she would negotiate on  behalf of “one United Kingdom, taking due account of the specific interests of every nation and region of the UK.”

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader, responded by warning her that independence would be “inevitable” if she continued to block an early second referendum. Ms Sturgeon said the triggering of Article 50 represents a “leap in the dark.”

But the First Minister’s claim that there should be a second independence referendum between the autumn of 2018 and spring 2019, as both the Brexit ‘divorce’ and trade deals would be known by then, suffered a setback.

Mrs Merkel, the German Chancellor, ruled out parallel negotiations on both elements and a European Parliament draft resolution raised the prospect of a further three-year transition period while a trade deal is negotiated.

This would mean that Scots would not know the full details of the UK’s future relationship with the EU until spring 2022, a year after the next Holyrood elections. It would then take at least another 18 months to organise a referendum, making the earliest possible date autumn 2023.

Ms Sturgeon is expected to issue a formal request to Mrs May by the end of this week for negotiations over transferring the powers for another independence referendum, preferably within her timetable.

A combination of SNP and Green MSPs this week passed a motion at the Scottish Parliament giving her the authority to start talks but the UK Government reiterated there would be no discussions until after Brexit happens in March 2019.

Angus Robertson warned independence was inevitable if Theresa May continues blocking a second independence referendum Credit: AFP

Outlining the contents of her letter in the Commons, Mrs May said: We will strengthen the Union of the four nations that comprise our United Kingdom.”

Promising to consult the devolved governments on where repatriated powers should be held, she said: “It is the expectation of the government that the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will see a significant increase in their decision-making power as a result of this process.”

She repeated her pledge that no powers currently devolved will be removed from the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Nationalist MPs made repeated demands that she drop her opposition to an early independence vote but she urged them to respect the 2014 referendum result and argued that all parts of the UK should come together for the Brexit talks.

David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, said it was important to work through the powers that are being repatriated “in a systematic way” to decide which should be devolved but suggested they could cover agriculture, fisheries, criminal justice and the environment.

He said it was “fair to estimate” that there would be transitional period but it was not yet possible to specify for how long.

But Ms Sturgeon continued to argue for a referendum within two years. She said: “The UK Government’s hard-line approach to Brexit is a reckless gamble, and it is clear, even at these very early stages, that the final deal is almost certain to be worse economically than the existing arrangements – and potentially much worse.”

Mr Robertson, the Moray MP, told Mrs May to “respect the differences across the nations of the United Kingdom” on Brexit. He said: "If she does not, if she remains intransigent, and if she denies Scotland a choice on our future, she will make Scottish independence inevitable."

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