Theresa May’s formal response to Nicola Sturgeon was not going to be a surprise given that her initial line on Monday, when the First Minister demanded a second independence referendum, was that “this is not a moment to play politics”. Speaking this afternoon to Robert Peston, the Prime Minister repeatedly made clear that “now is not the time” for another vote.
Mrs May was never going to agree to a vote during the period suggested by Ms Sturgeon of autumn 2018 and spring 2019, unless she wanted to be thrashing out the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union while fighting to keep the United Kingdom together. The window given by the SNP leader would also likely close before the Brexit terms were ratified, and their consequences became clear. The Prime Minister suggested as such on ITV News, declaring: “Just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship.” That decision has infuriated the Scottish Nationalists, who argue that Holyrood should have control over the referendum timing. Nicola Sturgeon branded her response a “democratic outrage”, and will no doubt build on that when the SNP gathers for its spring conference tomorrow.
Crucially for the SNP, the UK Government hasn’t ruled out a second referendum. Theresa May insists that the next few months are “not the time”, so Ms Sturgeon can dig in and argue over when exactly they could say “now is the time” for a vote. The Prime Minister has full control, by contrast, over the time that Article 50 is triggered, as the Queen has given royal assent to the Brexit Bill. Of course, the Scottish Nationalists will be determined not to let her proceed with it quietly.
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