Theresa May has dramatically joined battle with Nicola Sturgeon by signalling she will block the First Minister’s plans for a fresh independence referendum within the next two years.
The Prime Minister claimed an Indyref2 on the timetable outlined by Ms Sturgeon would make it more difficult to negotiate a good Brexit deal with the rest of Europe and would be “unfair” to the people of Scotland by asking them to make a crucial decision without the necessary information.
But Ms Sturgeon hit back, warning that most Scots – both Yes and No supporters – would be “appalled” at the idea of a Conservative government trying to stand in the way of Scotland making its own choice.
She said: “This is like winding the clock back to the bad old days of Margaret Thatcher. It’s an argument for independence in a nutshell – that Westminster thinks it’s got the right to block the democratic mandate of the Scottish Government and the majority in the Scottish Parliament.
“History my look back on today and say it is the day the fate of the Union was sealed.”
Mrs May left the door open to the possibility of a referendum at some future date, but she rejected Ms Sturgeon’s plan for a vote sometime between autumn 2018 – when the First Minister says the Brexit deal should be clear – and spring 2019, when Brexit will take place.
In a TV interview Mrs May said: “Right now we should be working together, not pulling apart. We should be working together to get that right deal for Scotland, that right deal for the UK. That’s my job as Prime Minister and so for that reason I say to the SNP: now is not the time.”
Meanwhile, at a press conference in Edinburgh, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the UK government would not enter into “discussions or negotiations” on the request for a Section 30 order which would transfer the legal power to hold a vote to Holyrood.
He said: “The proposal brought forward is not fair, people will not be able to make an informed choice. Neither is there public or political support for such a referendum.
“Therefore we will not be entering into discussions or negotiations about a Section 30 agreement and any request at this time will be declined.”
Speaking alongside Mr Mundell, Scottish Conservative leader and Edinburgh Central MSP Ruth Davidson said if the First Minister’s timetable for a referendum was accepted, people would be “voting blind” on the most important political decision a country could make.
She said: “I believe it’s only right that people should have the opportunity to examine the UK’s new relationship with the European Union once it is up and running.
“People should only be asked to make a judgment on whether to leave or remain within a 300-year-old union of nations when they have seen for themselves how that union is functioning following Brexit.
“They should also know what the alternative entails and we have seen no clarity from the SNP on even the basic questions of their proposition.”
Asked to clarify their stance on timescale, Ms Davidson said: “We’re not setting arbitrary timetables, we’re not pinning this to years unlike the First Minister has, we’re pinning this to principle.”
A spokesman for the First Minister described Mrs May’s statement as “spectacularly unclear”.
He said: “If we do get clarity that what the PM means is that discussion about a referendum should not even begin until some point after Brexit, then effectively what the PM is doing is unilaterally blocking a referendum. That would be a democratic outrage.”
Asked how badly such a move would go down in Scotland, he said: “I think it would play disastrously. I think it would be a miscalculation and a blunder of epic and historic proportions.”
Ms Sturgeon – who caught the UK government by surprise with her announcement on Monday about seeking a fresh referendum – said she was not asking for a new vote now, but when the terms of Brexit were clear and “before it is too late to choose an alternative path”.
She said if Mrs May blocked a new vote it would be undemocratic and unacceptable because of the Scottish Government’s mandate to hold a referendum and also “proof positive that the Tories fear the verdict of the Scottish people”.
The Scottish Parliament is due to vote next Wednesday on the request for a Section 30 order from Westminster.
Although the SNP has no overall majority at Holyrood, Green MSPs will back the request, ensuring it will secure enough votes.
Green external affairs spokesman, Ross Greer said: “If a Tory Westminster government that Scotland did not elect seriously think they can block our right to choose – and that they can veto a decision of our elected parliament – they will only increase support for independence.”
He said the UK government’s comments underlined “the contemptuous attitude the Tories have toward Scotland”.
Scottish Labour leader and Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale said her party would oppose the move for a second referendum.
She said: “Our country is divided enough. We do not want to be dragged back to those arguments of the past.
“There absolutely should not be another independence referendum until after Brexit. We have no idea what Brexit looks like, or how it will impact our economy and families in Scotland. People cannot be asked to make a decision about the future of our 300-year-old Union in the dark.
“If there is to be another vote, the people of Scotland deserve clarity on what they are being asked to vote on.”
But she added: “If after Brexit we have that clarity and the people of Scotland want a referendum on leaving the UK, then it isn’t the job of the UK government to stand in the way of that.”
In the House of Commons, the SNP’s Pete Wishart warned ministers that any attempt to block a referendum would simply backfire.
“Surely there can be no case for standing in the way of democracy and defying the will of the democratically elected parliament in Scotland.” he said.
“If this government are thinking for one minute of standing in the way of Scottish democracy, it will be the biggest recruiting sergeant possible for the cause of Scottish independence.”