Theresa May will frustrate Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of a second independence referendum for as long as six years as she draws the battle lines for her defence of the “precious, precious Union”.
The Prime Minister decided Scotland should not be given a vote until Scots have seen how Brexit works out, and will call Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff by challenging her to prove at the next Scottish elections in 2021 her claim that she has a “cast iron” mandate for a new poll.
Mrs May infuriated the First Minister by formally rejecting her demand for a referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, saying “now is not the time” for a vote on the future of the Union.
Ms Sturgeon described the decision as a “democratic outrage” and said she remained "determined" to hold a poll on her own timescale. She added that she would "consider my options and what I should do" if a Scottish Parliament request for permission to hold a referendum is turned down.
The Prime Minister will not begin talks on a referendum until Brexit has had time to bed in - likely to be a period of two years. It could then take another 18 months to complete the formalities needed for the referendum to take place, pushing it back as far as 2023.
By ensuring no vote will take place before the 2021 Scottish elections, Mrs May has cast doubt on whether a referendum will happen at all, as unionists will be hoping the public appetite for a vote will have dwindled by then and that the SNP, increasingly criticised over its domestic policies, will have lost support.
The Prime Minister will on Friday tell the Conservative Spring Forum in Cardiff that: “We are four nations, but at heart we are one people... and I will always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.”
Unveiling her Plan for Britain, her vision for the country’s future under her leadership, Mrs May will also say: “The Union is more than just a constitutional artefact. It is a union between all of our citizens, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.
“So our Plan for Britain will put strengthening and sustaining that Union at its heart.”
Mrs May’s rejection of Ms Sturgeon’s demands, made on the eve of the SNP conference in Aberdeen, was greeted with fury by Ms Sturgeon.
She said: “If the Prime Minister refuses to engage on the terms of a referendum before Brexit takes place then she is effectively trying to block the people of Scotland having a choice over their future. That would be a democratic outrage.
“It is for the Scottish Parliament – not Downing Street – to determine the timing of a referendum, and the decision of the Scottish Parliament must be respected. It would be outrageous for the Scottish Parliament to be frozen out of the process.” She claimed the delaying tactic would only serve to stoke up nationalism, adding: “History may look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the Union was sealed."
Her spokesman described Mrs May’s stalling tactic as “a blunder of epic and historic proportions”.
Mrs May set out her stall ahead of a vote in the Scottish Parliament next week to set the wheels in motion for a referendum by seeking a so-called Section 30 agreement with Westminster.The former Conservative minister Iain Duncan Smith hit back by suggesting it was Ms Sturgeon who had blundered. Speaking on the Telegraph's Brexit Podcast, he said: "Nicola Sturgeon has made a very big error of judgement and it's just beginning to dawn on her."
Her official spokesman said she wanted MSPs to be “informed when they have that vote... we hope they might step back now we have made that clear”.
David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, said: “We will not be entering into discussions or negotiations about a Section 30 agreement and any request at this time will be declined.”
Ruth Davidson MSP, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said it would be “unfair” on Scots to “vote blind” in a referendum by going to the polls before the Brexit negotiations had even been completed. She refused to name an “arbitrary” date for a poll to be held and set out three tests that will push back the poll for years.
Talks would not start on a second referendum before Scots have “seen for themselves” how the Union is functioning following Brexit. The UK is due to leave the EU in March 2019 but there could be a further two-year transitional period while a trade deal is finalised.
Secondly, Ms Davidson said that Scots should know “what the alternative entails” and argued there has not been any clarity from the SNP on even “basic questions” about independence.
She also said there would also have to be political and public consent for another vote, and defined the latter as consistent 60 per cent support in the opinion polls for a referendum.
Even after the tests were met, it could take another 18 months before another referendum is held. A deal would have to be reached between the two governments, legislation passed then a minimum campaign period of six months before polling day.
“It is essential that we get the right deal, and that all of our efforts and energies as a country and focused on that outcome.Mrs May will say in her speech in Cardiff on Friday: “The coming negotiations with the EU will be vital for everyone in the United Kingdom.
“We need to do so united, as one United Kingdom, all pulling together to get the best outcome. That is what we have always done when faced with challenges. We have pulled together as one and succeeded together.”