If there is one thing that we can be certain about following this week’s political events, it is that Prime Minister Theresa May is not simply David Cameron in a skirt.
After a significant amount of establishment and media pressure to back down on her Brexit timetable and allow many concessions and delays, she has had her Article 50 Bill passed and can now start the process of exiting the EU unhindered.
She said “Brexit means Brexit” and then explained the process and timing – and is now delivering on all three.
Just as dogged has been May’s reasoned but robust defence of British interests against an embittered first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. Even while some votes remained to be counted on the morning after the Brexit referendum, the headstrong SNP leader had rushed to announce a second independence vote was “highly likely”.
This bravado and bluster was repeated regularly but May continued saying the negotiated deal would be for all of the UK. Seeing her threats were getting her nowhere, Sturgeon then modified her stance to say Scotland should be able to have its own deal to remain in the Single Market. But May out thought her again.
First, May announced in her Lancaster House speech in January that all of the UK would leave the Single Market and its Customs Union, while the EU made it known there could be no separate deal for Scotland. Sturgeon’s proposals were suddenly unworkable. Then May made it clear she would not countenance a second referendum while the delicate Brexit negotiations were ongoing and the outcome was unknown, effectively calling Sturgeon’s bluff.
There was only one way Sturgeon could save face with her nationalist legions – and on Monday she announced she would seek the power from Westminster to hold a second independence referendum between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019.
Scrambling to find a pretext for breaking her word that the previous referendum was a “once in a lifetime opportunity”, Sturgeon played to type by adopting the role of victim on Scotland’s behalf.
She claimed the Scottish government’s attempts to find a different EU arrangement had been ignored and there would now be a significant material change in Scotland’s relationship with the UK. Neither is true.
Sturgeon had previously claimed there would only be another referendum if there was a consistent and clear lead of 60/40 in the polls for a period of six months – or a significant change in material circumstances. Neither has happened.
First, the polls have shown a falling demand for a second referendum, dropping to only 29 per cent last month. Second, it was a well known risk that if Scotland stayed in the UK an EU referendum was always probable and the outcome of Brexit always possible.
Cameron had made his commitment in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013 and later in June the Conservatives brought an EU Referendum Bill before Parliament. Voters had to take account of the circumstances when they came to vote in the first independence referendum. Indeed, the SNP did their best to ensure everyone knew about the “threat” of Brexit by including an explanatory paragraph in Alex Salmond’s White Paper prepared in advance of the independence vote.
Sturgeon can use phrases such as Scotland being “dragged out of the EU” to whip up sentiment for her divisive case, but the reality is that Scots chose the UK in full possession of the facts of what might happen down the road.
Read more: Time to dust down the case against the SNP
The political reality that May has called out is that, despite the collapse of its economic case, the SNP wants independence at any price and cares not that Scotland faces two more years of uncertainty that will damage already stagnating growth. Investment will slow down further, business decisions will be postponed and jobs will be lost.
Sturgeon says there should be a second vote in the next two years so the Scottish people can have the evidence to decide their future. This is a smokescreen, for while the UK’s Brexit negotiations should be clearer no-one will know what the membership terms for Scotland re-entering the EU will be.
What about Schengen and euro membership, handing its fisheries over – and what will it pay for EU membership – when the rest of the UK could be gaining access to the Single Market for free? Not least, will Spain, Belgium, France and Greece be keen to encourage nationalist forces in their own lands?
The referendum may now happen but in May the SNP face a more formidable leader than the last time round.