Ian Swanson: Hardline approach May not be best option

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon enter Bute House. Picture: Scott Taylor
Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon enter Bute House. Picture: Scott Taylor
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The sister act didn’t last long. Back in July, one of Theresa May’s first moves as Prime Minister was to come to Edinburgh to meet Nicola Sturgeon.

Afterwards, the First Minister said that while she and Mrs May were from very different places on the political spectrum, they had something in common. “She’s a woman who has a fairly businesslike way of doing things, which I have too. So I think we can find a way of working together.”

On that occasion Mrs May said she was “willing to listen to options” on Scotland’s future relationship with the European Union.

But now the Prime Minister seems to have changed her tune, insisting there is “no opt-out from Brexit”.

She told the Conservative conference in Birmingham: “We voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we negotiated as one United Kingdom and will leave as one United Kingdom.

“I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union of the four nations of our United Kingdom.”

In response, Ms Sturgeon took to Twitter: “PM going out of her way to say Scotland’s voice and interests don’t matter. Strange approach from someone who wants to keep UK together.”

It was obviously much easier for the Prime Minister to sound conciliatory towards Remain-voting Scotland when she emerged from Bute House than it would be to take the same line in front of thousands of Brexit-ecstatic Tory activists celebrating their unexpected referendum victory.

But Mrs May has now pledged she will trigger Article 50 by the end of March next year, starting the two-year countdown to Britain’s exit, and signalled a minimum role for the Scottish Government in the process.

She has also announced a Great Repeal Bill to end Brussels’ powers over the UK.

The SNP’s Brexit minister, Michael Russell, suggests Holyrood could block the repeal proposals by refusing to pass a legislative consent motion – an agreement allowing Westminster to make laws covering devolved responsibilities – unless Scotland had a proper role in Brexit negotiations.But the UK Government is arguing no such legislative consent motion is required despite the fact the repeal will affect a host of areas which fall within Holyrood’s remit.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell insists: “Leaving the EU and foreign affairs are a reserved matter, so ultimately it is for the UK Government to determine the arrangements for the UK leaving the EU.”

And Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has joined in, underlining the UK Government’s message there will be “no Scottish veto” on the UK deal for leaving the EU.

So despite the Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to listen in July, it seems she is now set on what looks like a “hard” Brexit – sacrificing the tariff-free trade of the single market in favour of trying to cut the number of people from EU countries coming to live and work in Britain.

Mrs May is clearly determined not to let Scotland or the SNP deflect her from that course.

The polls showing the SNP’s hopes of a surge in support for independence have not materialised – so far, at least – may have strengthened her hand.

But Scotland does have different needs, especially when it comes to immigration, and as details of the deal for British exit become clearer, public opinion could shift again.

It may be unwise for the Prime Minister to appear too hostile to Scots.