A second Scottish independence referendum is now almost inevitable, with ministers concluding it is a question of when — not if — a vote is called.
People close to Theresa May’s office said they expected Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, to seek a referendum next autumn, but that the government would fight to delay the vote until after Britain leaves the EU.
Although the British government could withhold the legal authority for a vote, it now appears focused on determining the date instead.
“It’s looking inevitable, I don’t think we’re in any position to stop it happening,” said one minister close to the discussions. Another person briefed on Downing Street’s thinking said: “ The debate is only going to be about the date.”
But a person close to the Scotland Office denied that a vote was inevitable, adding that Ms Sturgeon could decide not to push for one.
The gathering storm in Scotland
Discontent is mounting from Nicola Sturgeon and the nationalists north of the border
An independence referendum would complicate the path to Brexit, potentially throwing a grenade into negotiations between London and Brussels. An Ipsos Mori poll released on Thursday showed Scots were split 50-50 on independence, after a series of polls giving unionists a clear lead.
Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are looking at delaying the referendum until May 2019 or later, when Britain is scheduled to have left the EU, said one person briefed on conversations. In contrast, the Scottish National party is expected to demand a vote in August or September 2018, making it easier for Scotland to become an independent member of the EU.
Ms Sturgeon told the BBC on Thursday that autumn 2018 would be the “common sense time” for a vote, although she stressed no decision had been taken.
Late 2018 would be four years after the last independence referendum, which was billed as an “once-in-a-generation” event. It is also when Mrs May’s government is due to be in the final stretch of negotiations with Brussels. It will be trying to convince Brexiters that they have struck a sufficiently strong deal over immigration and payments to the EU budget.
“What the nationalists are gaming on is that you can’t fight a war on two fronts,” said the person close to the prime minister, adding that the backdrop would be government “appeasement of the Daily Mail”.
It’s looking inevitable, I don’t think we’re in any position to stop it happening. The debate is only going to be about the date
UK government minister
Senior SNP figures — including the former leader Alex Salmond — are pressing Ms Sturgeon to push ahead with a vote. In January, Ms Sturgeon said she would not seek a referendum in the short term should Britain remain in the single market, but Mrs May ruled that out shortly afterwards.
Iain Anderson, executive chairman of financial advisory group Cicero, said: “There’s an awful lot of shadow boxing going on, and that’s pretty much been the case since the result of the EU referendum.”
Scots voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent against Brexit. In the new Ipsos Mori poll, 52 per cent of respondents said there should be a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Only 24 per cent said that Mrs May was doing a good job of representing Scotland’s interests in the exit process.
Michael Fallon, defence minister, raised the possibility of Downing Street blocking a second referendum, saying last month that nationalists should “forget it”. However, Mrs May has stuck to a more ambiguous line, saying simply that there “should not be” another referendum so soon after the 2014 No vote.
“There is no need for another referendum and the SNP government should get on with the day job rather than playing games over independence,” said Downing Street.
Additional reporting by Mure Dickie