Talks between the UK government and devolved administrations have highlighted deep divides over Brexit as Nicola Sturgeon emerged from Downing Street voicing frustration at a lack of progress.
Leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said they had been left “no clearer” about how the Theresa May will take Britain out of the EU despite two hours of discussions in Number 10.
Ms Sturgeon said there had been a “frank exchange of views”, with the Prime Minister repeatedly told she did not have a mandate for a hard Brexit. The Scottish First Minister also restated her threat to call a second independence referendum in response to the proposed settlement with the EU, insisting she was not “bluffing or game-playing”.
“I don’t mind admitting large parts of the meeting were deeply frustrating,” Ms Sturgeon said outside Number 10.
“I don’t know any more now about the UK government’s approach to the EU negotiations than I did before I went in to the meeting.
“I can’t speak for the other devolved administrations but I think there was a degree of frustration shared by all of us about that.”
The great union between us has been the cornerstone of our prosperity in the past - and it is absolutely vital to our success in the future.Theresa May
The First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones warned that “time is not on our side” to bridge the gap between devolved administrations and the UK government before Article 50 is triggered at the end of March, starting the two-year countdown to the country’s exit from the EU.
Ms Sturgeon arrived in London with two of her key demands – that Scotland be given new powers over immigration and international trade – already having been dismissed by Conservative ministers.
As talks began, the First Minister was also warned not to “undermine” the UK’s Brexit negotiating position by pursuing her own agenda on Europe.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We expect representatives of the devolved administrations to act in that way and to in no way undermine the UK’s position.”
Ms Sturgeon dismissed the comments as “nonsense”, adding: “To be brutally frank about it, you can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and from everything I have heard today in Downing Street there isn’t yet a UK government negotiating position.”
She added: “We need the UK government to be prepared to talk to us fully about what they are trying to achieve. They weren’t prepared to do that today.”
Asked whether there was time to reach an agreement with Mrs May on Brexit or call a second independence referendum, the First Minister said “the jury’s out”.
Scotland’s government will publish a paper setting out “specific proposals” in the next few weeks for a so-called flexible Brexit that would keep the nation in the single market even if the rest of the UK leaves the trading area.
It fell to Scottish Secretary David Mundell to hold out some hope of a compromise, suggesting there could be “nuances and options” within the UK’s Brexit deal.
“There will be a UK approach and we’re clear on that but there are opportunities for nuances and options,” he said. “One of the obvious one is the Northern Ireland land border and that will have to be specifically dealt with.”
On immigration, Mr Mundell added: “The first position is to bring control of immigration back to the UK. The policies you then deploy are a matter for discussion within the UK.”
Yesterday was the first full meeting of the joint ministerial committee (JMC) since 2014. Devolved governments have been offered seats on a new Brexit sub-committee of the JMC, and at least two more meetings will be held before Christmas with the next expected on 9 November.
Mr Jones also took a hard line despite Wales’ vote for Brexit, warning that his government would not support a deal that saw access to the European single market restricted.
Describing the imposition of trade tariffs as his “red line”, the Welsh First Minister said: “We need to make sure we continue to sell in one of the world’s biggest markets on the same terms as we do now.”
Martin McGuinness, the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, said: “As this process moves along, we need to be at the heart of it.”
Following the meeting, Ms May said: “The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.”