George Pascoe-Watson: Scotland is the new focus for Theresa May's Brexit battle

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 27 February 2017 in Opinion

The PM has put ministers on alert as she tries to stop Nicola Sturgeon calling a second independence referendum.


Be Briton still to Britain true
Among oursel’s united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs  be righte

These are the words of Robert Burns, Scotland’s poet king, more than two centuries ago. They capture well Theresa May’s view of the Union and her determination this week to save it.

Mrs May cannot afford to go into Brexit negotiations without the whole country behind her. And now is the time to bind the Scots into her battle for the future of the UK.

The Premier’s appeal to voters north of the border is clear: help me get the best deal for you.

There are serious fears in No 10 that Scots first minister Nicola Sturgeon will gamble all by calling for  a second independence referendum. And the Prime Minister is focused solely on making sure Ms Sturgeon doesn’t take this final roll of the dice.

Polls show consistently that the independence movement north of the border is in retreat. With every day that comes, the SNP’s support erodes as voters realise the romance of Scots nationalism is actually a nightmare of broken promises. Yet Mrs May cannot be sure what would happen if Ms Sturgeon reached for the nuclear option of an referendum demand.

Say no, as the Westminster government would, and she risks a recruitment drive for the SNP thanks to accusations of London meddling in Edinburgh’s affairs.

Say yes, call the SNP’s bluff, and who knows what might happen? A second rejection of independence cannot be guaranteed, despite the polls.

2016 showed us just about anything in politics is possible. So Mrs May has put her team on notice for some weeks – whatever else is going on in the world, getting it right in Scotland is her absolute priority.

The PM will travel to Glasgow this week and address voters from her party’s annual Spring gathering. She takes the First Minister’s threat of calling a second referendum very seriously indeed.Those around the Premier know that there are only three things in her mind as she governs: Brexit, the economy and security. Yet Scotland – the Union – has become a crucial part of the mix in recent weeks.

Why? Firstly, she knows her Brexit negotiating hand will be much weakened if she’s not representing the whole nation. EU counterparts and the Commission themselves would take glee in pointing out she wasn’t representing a united position. It’s why Ms Sturgeon’s attempts to build her own diplomatic ties with EU leaders has been so frustrating to Downing Street figures.

One insider says: “Why on earth would the Scots want to go into a second referendum when they don’t even know what the Brexit settlement will look like? The PM wants the whole nation behind her as she goes into the these negotiations. She can’t be seen to have one hand tied behind her back.”

Secondly, Mrs May is no romantic. Far from it. But spend any time with the Premier and it’s clear that she feels deeply British Her sense of identity comes from her strong conviction that all four corners of the UK are equals.

Added to this is her formidable sense of public duty to serve. The Cabinet Office has been pressed into play to mount a campaign. Cabinet ministers are under orders to visit Scotland regularly. One experienced campaigner in her team says: “She knows that hard graft is often the thing that gets results and she’s in it for the long haul.”

Mrs May is also motivated by a political prize that’s becoming more and more tangible – the prospect of winning seats in Scotland. Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson is a force of nature unlike any political chieftain of our times. She’s been wisely given the space she needs to be seen by Scots voters as independent of the London Conservative Party machine. She has earned plaudits for speaking her own mind, not that of the Highland branch of the Tory Party. Indeed, spend more than five seconds in her company and you realise she wouldn’t be seen dead at a traditional Conservative gathering.

There is now a real chance of the Tories beginning to grow their Scottish footprint. Labour continue to plumb the depths and Ms Sturgeon’s rein is under mounting pressure as polls show falling support for independence. Her most recent threat of calling a second referendum came in January.

Since then, there’s been something of a row back. But people around the Premier believe it’s a last roll of the dice for Ms Sturgeon if she feels backed into a corner.

One aide says: “It’s irresponsible for her to have whipped people up into a tiz about a referendum. But for us it’s not a risk worth taking.”




Picture by Andrew Milligan PA Archive/PA Images

About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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