Nicola Sturgeon tells Theresa May Brexit bill not acceptable

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Nicola Sturgeon has told Theresa May that the EU Withdrawal Bill is not acceptable to the Scottish Government in its current form.

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves 10 Downing Street after talks with Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves 10 Downing Street after talks with Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Efforts to avoid a constitutional crisis over Brexit remain deadlocked after Nicola Sturgeon emerged from a meeting with Theresa May saying she still could not support legislation that will take the UK out of the EU.

After a 40-minute face-to-face summit, the First Minister told reporters that the two sides had inched towards a better understanding of each other’s positions, but said there was “still a long way to go” to reach a deal.

Ms Sturgeon said she could not recommend that Holyrood pass a legislative consent motion approving the bill, meaning the constitutional impasse is set to hang over the Brexit process into the new year.

The meeting came as MPs were involved in fiery exchanges during the first day of debate on amendments to the crucial EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

Speaking outside Number 10, the First Minister said: “I made very clear, as the Scottish Government has done consistently that the Withdrawal Bill as it stands would not be acceptable, and we would not be able to recommend approval of that.

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“That remains the position, but hopefully, having had the chance to air the concerns that we have in more detail, we will be able to see some more progress in weeks to come.”

The Scottish Government wants legislation changed so that 111 powers held by the EU in devolved areas return to Holyrood, rather than being held by Westminster before some of them are handed on.

Ministers from both governments are understood to have reached a broad agreement on which powers will require cooperation to maintain a common regulatory regime across the UK, but talks are deadlocked on the principle of where powers will lie, with the SNP and Labour accusing the Conservatives of a “power grab”.

It was the first meeting between the two leaders since March, and follows disparaging comments by Ms Sturgeon who said the Prime Minister was “difficult” to deal with and read off a script even when holding talks in private. There were reports during the summer that Ms Sturgeon would be “banned” from face to face meetings with Mrs May.

Last night, the First Minister said the encounter had been “constructive and cordial”, adding: “It was certainly better than some of the meetings we’ve had before.”

Shadow Scotland secretary Lesley Laird MP said the country was “stuck between two obstinate governments” and called for compromise.

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“The First Minister refuses to rule out a second independence referendum, while the Prime Minister is intent on a race-to-the-bottom Brexit which hoards power in Westminster. The people of Scotland deserve better.”

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins MSP said it was “clear there is a deal to be done on the return of powers which both respects devolution and protects the UK internal market.”

In the Commons, a proposal by Plaid Cymru that would require the UK government to get consent from devolved legislatures before leaving the EU was defeated by 318 votes to 52.

Plaid MP Hywel Williams had claimed Mrs May would be “breaking her promise” to deliver a Brexit that works for the whole UK if she failed to win the consent of devolved administrations.

Angry Conservative MPs clashed over a government amendment to fix the date that Brexit takes effect as 29 March 2019, saying it would force the UK out of the EU without a deal if negotiations go down to the wire. The amendment will be voted on near the end of eight days of debate spread over the next four weeks on more than 400 proposed changes.

Former chancellor Ken Clarke said plans to fix the Brexit date were “ridiculous and unnecessary” and said the move would be “positively harmful to the national interest”.

Labour Party Brexit spokesman Paul Blomfield said fixing a day in law was “a gimmick” by “a prime minister so weak she is trying to tie her own hands behind her back.”

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Pro-Brexit Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin prompted an angry response by telling colleagues: “Any MPs who voted for Article 50 but then do not want to fix the date are open to the charge that they don’t want us to leave the European Union.”

Fellow Tory Anna Soubry could be heard saying: “You disgrace, Bernard. You’re a disgrace.”

Government whips face a battle to push the legislation through the Commons after failing to appease pro-EU rebels with plans to put the Brexit deal agreed in Brussels forward in a separate piece of legislation. At a heated meeting on Monday, MPs rejected the offer, saying it gave them a ‘take it or leave it’ decision between the government’s Brexit deal or no deal at all.