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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Another week, another Brexit row in Parliament. Last week, it was over the House of Lords’ insistence that ministers guarantee the residency rights of EU nationals before triggering Article 50. This week it’s whether Parliament should have a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal before Britain agrees that deal. Of the two issues, this week’s is more serious, and more revealing.
Serious, because there appears to at least some chance of a real Government defeat. Assuming the Lords back the “meaningful vote” amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, it’s possible that enough Conservative MPs will rebel next week to back that amendment. Hence No 10’s pre-emptive strike, warning giving Parliament the chance to reject a proposed deal would give the EU an “incentive” to offer a bad deal, in the hope that Parliament would then reject it and maintain EU membership, at least until a new one was agreed, or perhaps in perpetuity.
Telling, because that warning gives some interesting clues about how solid No 10 believes support for Brexit really is. Right now, Brexit has the irresistible momentum of an express train at full speed. Hence the Commons’ easy passage of the Brexit bill. But in a couple of years’ time, after the hard pounding of talks in Brussels? The converts in No 10 appear to have been infected by the fears of some Brexiteers that their victory is fragile and reversible, that a country that today strongly backs Brexit could be persuaded to think again. Mrs May is currently supreme, but she takes nothing for granted.
That warning also tells us something else about Mrs May’s Brexit thinking: she doesn’t share the true Brexit believers’ conviction that even leaving the EU without a deal and relying on basic WTO rules is preferable to continued membership. Believers such as Daniel Hannan have argued that while they’d prefer a deal, Britain should not fear a WTO Brexit. Doesn’t today’s warning over the Brexit Bill amount to No 10 tacitly admitting that Parliament (and perhaps, the British public) wouldn’t share that confidence, and thus would not back a Government that rejected a bad deal from Brussels and walk out of the EU empty-handed.
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Theresa May went up to Glasgow today to reassure Scottish Conservatives of her intention to keep the Union safe as part of the Brexit process. The Prime Minister insisted that Scotland and England would not “drift apart” under her watch, and used her half-hour address to set out a detailed case for the “enduring” economic, security and social benefits to the Union. Her unerring focus on the Union did make it sound like Downing Street is preparing for Mrs Sturgeon to demand the power to stage a second independence referendum, most likely when the SNP gather for their Spring Conference in a fortnight.
Mrs May’s speech came after Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, told the Telegraph that the Unionists would win another vote by an even larger margin but hinted that Mrs May would not allow a rerun of the 2014 vote until after Brexit. The Prime Minister went after the SNP as well, declaring that there was “no economic case” for Scottish independence”.
The Tories’ punchiness has impressed Tom Harris, who has written today about how “it is the Scottish Conservatives, not the Labour Party, to whom those who still cherish the Union are turning.” Ruth Davidson is one of the few politicians happy to challenge the SNP to a “ square go”, he says. “She seems to have boundless energy and a thick skin. She’s going to need both in the next few years.”
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On December 12, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, gave a fulsome speech to the annual Conservative Friends of Israel lunch. Before a roomful of 800 pro-Israel Conservative MPs and party supporters, she lavished praise on the Jewish state. She praised Israel’s achievements and castigated its enemies. She said that Britain would be marking the centenary of the Balfour declaration “with pride.” She also stressed that cooperation and friendship between Britain and Israel was not just for the good of those two countries, but “for the good of the world.”
For many of the people listening in the room, there were just two discordant notes. The first was related to the focus on anti-Semitism in May’s speech. As she used the opportunity rightly to lambaste the Labour party for its anti-Semitism problem, she extended the reach of her own claims for herself. While boasting of her success as Home Secretary in keeping out the prominent French anti-Semite Dieudonné and finally deporting the Salafist cleric Abu Qatada al-Filistini back to his native Jordan, she also used the opportunity to congratulate herself for banning Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Pastor Terry Jones from coming to the UK. “Islamophobia comes from the same wellspring of hatred” as anti-Semitism, she explained.
This is a serious category error for a Prime Minister to make. It puts critics of a religion, such as Geller and Spencer, on the same plane as people wanted for terrorism (Qatada). It blurs the line between speech and action, and mixes people who call for violence with those who do not. The comparison also fails to follow the consequences of its logic to its own illogical conclusion. The comparison fails to recognise that anyone who objects to Islamic anti-Semitism is immediately known as an “Islamophobe.” Therefore, someone hoping to come to Britain would have to accept being attacked by Muslim extremists for fear of being banned from entering the UK. These are serious and basic misunderstandings for a Prime Minister to propagate.
There was, however, a clear political sense to them. A Prime Minister in a country such as 21st Century Britain might believe that he or she has to be exceptionally careful not to appear to be criticising any one group of people or praising another too highly. So for the time being in Britain, a moral relativism continues to stagnate. If the Jewish community complains of anti-Semitism, then you must criticise anti-Semitism. If the Muslim community complains of “Islamophobia,” then you must criticise “Islamophobia.” To make value judgements might be to commit an act of political folly. Wise leaders in increasingly “diverse” societies must therefore position themselves midway between all communities, neither castigating nor over-praising, in order to keep as many people onside as possible.
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