Theresa May accused Nicola Sturgeon of treating Scotland’s future like a “game” as she insisted a second independence referendum should not take place.
The Prime Minister responded to the surprise call for a second referendum with a stern rebuke to Ms Sturgeon, accusing the SNP leader of having “tunnel vision” over independence. However, Downing Street stopped short of saying it would block a referendum from taking place by refusing to grant the necessary powers through a Section 30 order.
Mrs May said: “This is at a time when the Scottish people, the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.
“Instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish Government should focus on delivering good government and public services for the people of Scotland. Politics is not a game.”
A referendum in late 2018 or early 2019 would “cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time”, when Brexit negotiations would be reaching a climax, the UK government said.
It is believed ministers have considered offering the Scottish Parliament the powers to hold a new referendum with a “sunrise clause”, dictating that no vote could take place until a certain point after Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman refused to be drawn on whether permission for a second vote would be given, saying: “We have said there shouldn’t be a second referendum. But as for the issue, it hasn’t gone through the Scottish Parliament yet.
“We are waiting for the Scottish Parliament to reach a decision. But we are 100 per cent clear that we do not believe there should be a second independence referendum. They said at the time [ie, in 2014] this would decide the issue for a generation.”
The European Commission confirmed that the “Barroso doctrine” established during the 2014 referendum campaign still applied, meaning an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union rather than automatically being a member.
Ms Sturgeon’s announcement prompted anger from the leaders of the pro-Union parties at Holyrood. However, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that his party would not seek to block a Section 30 order if it was put to the House of Commons.
He said: “The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was billed as a once in a generation event. The result was decisive and there is no appetite for another referendum.
“Labour believes it would be wrong to hold another so soon and Scottish Labour will oppose it in the Scottish Parliament.
“If, however, the Scottish Parliament votes for one, Labour will not block that democratic decision at Westminster.
“If there is another referendum, Labour will oppose independence because it is not in the interests of any part of the country to break up the UK.”
The Liberal Democrats were the only party to confirm they would vote against a second referendum in both the Scottish and UK parliaments.
Alistair Carmichael MP, the Lib Dem former Scottish secretary, said: “All of us in whatever part of the UK we are in face an enormous amount of uncertainty as a result of the vote last June. This is one of the few things you could imagine that could make this worse.
“This is something that the people of Scotland do not want, they do not need and it should not be happening.”
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond denied the First Minister had been “backed into a corner” over her response to Brexit, and said she was starting her campaign in a much better position than in 2014.
He said: “I called the previous referendum in Scotland and I think the day I called it at the end of 2012, the opinion poll for Yes was 28 per cent. The average of the last three opinion polls in Scotland is 49 per cent.”
He said: “By the autumn of next year or spring 2019 we’ll know the outcome of the Brexit talks because it has to go to all of the parliaments across the EU in order to be ratified. We will also know what the Scottish Government has to say following the conversations they’ve been having in Europe in terms of what the alternative for Scotland is.
“When these two options are put before the Scottish people I’ve got absolutely no doubt there will be a resounding vote in favour of independence and keeping that 1,000-year long European connection that Scotland has had.”