Nicola Sturgeon blinks first in battle with Theresa May over independence referendum timing

Nicola Sturgeon applauds a speaker on the first day of the SNP conference in Aberdeen
Nicola Sturgeon applauds a speaker on the first day of the SNP conference in Aberdeen Credit: AFP

Nicola Sturgeon will today tell Theresa May she is willing to backtrack over her preferred timing for an independence referendum after she came under pressure to rule out unilaterally holding an “illegitimate” vote if no deal is reached.

 The First Minister will use key keynote speech to the SNP conference in Aberdeen to claim she is “happy” to hold talks with Mrs May over her plan for a vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. She told the BBC yesterday that “we might only be a matter of weeks or months apart.”

But she will also warn Mrs May that defying the Scottish Parliament would “shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals.”

Ms Sturgeon blinked first in the constitutional standoff over the referendum’s timing after the Prime Minister rejected her plan for an early vote, saying “now is not the time” as she is about to embark on highly complex Brexit negotiations.

Instead, the Tories set a series of test that could see another vote being delayed for up to six years, including Brexit having bedded in and there being political and public consent in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon yesterday insisted that she had “various options” if no deal was reached but refused to disclose what they were.

However, the Unionist parties said she must rule out trying to unilaterally hold an advisory referendum, warning this would  not stand up to legal scrutiny and make Scotland “the laughing stock of the world.”

Downing Street made clear that the necessary powers were reserved to Westminster. David Cameron agreed to transfer the powers for the 2014 after signing a deal with Alex Salmond about its terms.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond agreed a deal to stage the 2014 independence referendum Credit: EPA

Despite Mrs May’s rejection, the Scottish Parliament is  expected to vote next week to give the First Minister the authority to ask the Prime Minister for the powers to hold another referendum. Holyrood has a nationalist majority of SNP and Green MSPs.

Ms Sturgeon will say today: “At that point a fair, legal, agreed referendum - on a timescale that will allow the people of Scotland an informed choice - ceases to be just my proposal, or that of the SNP.

“It becomes the will of the democratically elected Parliament of Scotland. To stand in defiance of it would be for the Prime Minister to shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals.”

Calling on Mrs May to think again, the First Minister will say: “If her concern is timing then - within reason - I am happy to have that discussion. But she should be in no doubt. The will of our parliament must and will prevail.”

But, if they tried to unilaterally hold an advisory vote, the Nationalists would face the embarrassing prospect of Holyrood's authorities ruling that their referendum bill was not competent.

As constitutional affairs are reserved, she could also face a battle in Scotland’s courts and it would probably result in a mass boycott from Unionist voters, fatally undermining the result’s legitimacy.

It is thought that the First Minister is more likely to pursue an intense campaign to whip up public opinion in favour of another referendum, including mass protests, marches and petitions.

Her spokesman rejected holding a snap Holyrood election to break the impasse, arguing it would be pointless as Mrs May could continue to ignore any fresh SNP mandate.

Scotland's first Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Angus Robertson, deputy SNP leader, acknowledge applause after addressing delegates at the SNP spring conference Credit: Getty

Ms Sturgeon told ITV News yesterday: “I have got various options that I would consider but with the greatest of respect I’m not going to share them with you right now. Well I will share them with the people of Scotland and the people of Scotland will have the right to know them once we are at that stage.”

She added: “I don’t think I should be getting into Plan Bs at this stage when I am putting forward a Plan A that has such a strong cast iron mandate.”

But Ian Murray, Scottish Labour’s Westminster spokesman, said: “The SNP must immediately withdraw the threat to impose an illegitimate and divisive referendum. Scotland is divided enough already without the Nationalists seeking to divide us even further.”

Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Conservative deputy leader, said: “The 2014 referendum was legal and fair, but a wildcat version – as so many SNP members seem to want – would be anything but. It appears Nicola Sturgeon's half-baked SNP's referendum plans are descending into chaos.”

A Downing Street spokesman said that calling a referendum “is a reserved power and the PM has been clear that now is not the right time.”

John Lamont, Scottish Tory Chief Whip, added: “Nicola Sturgeon said as late as Thursday that a referendum after April 2019 would be 'too late'. Now she has changed her mind and appears to be trying to engage in some kind of horse-trading with the UK Government.”

Chopper's Brexit Podcast Episode 3 Chopper's Brexit Podcast Episode 3
35:56

 

Please review our commenting policy