Theresa May only allowed Nicola Sturgeon to speak 'briefly' about second referendum before shutting her down

Simon Johnson

It was her big chance to tackle the Prime Minister over Scottish independence, but Nicola Sturgeon was only "briefly" allowed to mention a second referendum before she was shut down by Theresa May, it has been claimed.

The Prime Minister is understood to have dictated terms during their meeting at a Glasgow hotel, running down the clock by talking about Article 50 and a policing exercise before Ms Sturgeon tried to grab her chance at the end of their talk.

But sources made it clear that there was no "substantive" discussion of a referendum because Mrs May had already reiterated her position that "now is not the time".

She instead told the First Minister to forget all thoughts of a second Scottish referendum until voters had seen how Brexit was working "in the real world".

However, Ms Sturgeon insisted that her case for staging the vote within the next two years had been bolstered by Mrs May during their first face-to-face talks since she issued her referendum demand earlier this month.

The First Minister insisted there was no “rational” case for an independence referendum being delayed longer than two years because Mrs May had told her that both the UK’s Brexit and EU trade deals would be known by then.

Speaking after the meeting, Ms Sturgeon said she had sought total clarity on the timings of the Brexit and trade deals and the Prime Minister had not been “under any illusions” about why she was asking.

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But sources rejected Ms Sturgeon's interpretation of the conversation, saying that Scots should not be asked to make such a momentous decision until they had seen how Brexit was working in practice.

They said this would not have happened by the time Ms Sturgeon wanted to hold the referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.

Ms Sturgeon met Mrs May on the eve of a vote in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday night, which is expected to give her the authority to ask the Prime Minister for the powers to hold another referendum.

Speaking during her visit to Scotland, Mrs May made it clear that she had not changed her mind that “now is not the time to be talking about a second independence referendum.”

Sources said her discussion with Ms Sturgeon about the vote was extremely brief.

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David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, is also expected to write to the Scottish Government on Tuesday with an official rejection of Ms Sturgeon’s highly complex plan for Scotland to stay in the EU single market even if the rest of the UK comes out.

Mrs May met Ms Sturgeon as part of her pledge to consult with the devolved administrations ahead of the triggering of Article 50. The venue - the Crowne Plaza hotel - was kept secret until after the discussions had ended.

The First Minister described the talks as “cordial” and said that she had wished Mrs May well in the Brexit talks.

Mrs May is understood to have dictated the terms of the meeting with the Scottish First Minister in Glasgow on Monday - Russell Cheyne/PA

However, she said the preparatory work necessary for an independence referendum would have to start “quite quickly” if it was to be held within the next two years.

Ms Sturgeon said that Mrs May had been “absolutely adamant” that both the terms of the Brexit and trade deals would be known within two years and “obviously that is relevant in terms of the debate around an independence referendum.” 

She said: “"I think it makes it very difficult for the Prime Minister to maintain a rational opposition to a referendum in the timescale I have set out. I think she has got a perfectly rational opposition to a referendum now, which is why I am not proposing it.

"But I think based on the discussion today, I would struggle to see what her rational opposition to it would be in the timescale we have been talking about."

Ms Sturgeon said that during the talks she was not offered any more powers repatriated from Brussels, adding that the “expectation there may have been an offer we couldn’t refuse” did not happen.

A  source said: "We totally disagree with the First Minister's assessment [on timing]. It's not enough to take a decision based on the outline of a deal. People have to see how it is working in the real world." 

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