Has Theresa May conceded a second Brexit referendum?

Nicola Sturgeon announcing she wants a second Scottish independence referendum (IndyRef2) was probably the least surprising shock of the year so far. And yet it seems to have taken the UK government completely off-guard.

Theresa May rushed out a statement on Monday afternoon, trying to appear the conciliatory, sensible unifier to the SNP’s petty games-playing. But it’s clumsy in the extreme:

“The tunnel vision that the SNP has shown today is deeply regrettable, it sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty.”

Setting a course for uncertainty will create huge uncertainty? That’s so poorly phrased it’s not even a criticism — if you set course for uncertainty, then arriving at uncertainty should be deemed a success. May has singularly failed to explain why uncertainty is a bad thing to even aim for, let alone achieve.

“The evidence is that the Scottish people, the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.”

This rebuttal of IndyRef2 should have been written weeks ago when Sturgeon first started talking about it. Instead, May is still stumbling over whether it’s all of the Scottish people or just the majority that do not want a second referendum.

“So, instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish government should focus on delivering good government and public services for the people of Scotland.”

Quite apart from the sentiment that the Scottish government shouldn’t worry its pretty little head with affairs of international (or even UK-wide) importance, telling a government to focus on ‘good government’ is vacuous. The SNP believes that calling for a second independence referendum is good government for the interests of Scotland. May fails to explain why it is not.

The Second Bite

It’s poor politics that the Prime Minister of the UK should even have to take a second bite at such an obvious cherry as IndyRef2, but need it she did. Unfortunately, that second bite has undermined her position even more severely than the first. It started well enough:

Credit: BBC
“To be talking about an independence referendum would, I think, make it more difficult for us to get the right deal for Scotland and the right deal for the UK.”

Few people would complain about this logic: you hardly want to be campaigning in a major constitutional referendum while implementing the enormous changes of the previous one. But then things get rocky:

“[IndyRef2] wouldn’t be fair to the people of Scotland because they’d be being asked to make a crucial decision without the necessary information, without knowing what the future partnership would be or what the alternative of an independent Scotland would look like.”

“They’d be being asked” aside, May is actually stating that she doesn’t know what the future relationship between the UK and the EU will be after Brexit. This is despite her 12-point plan, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stating that he’s genuinely sure we’ll get “a very good deal” and Brexit Minister David Davis claiming our “best days are still ahead of us.”

But Theresa May explicitly says that Scotland shouldn’t have an IndyRef2 because they wouldn’t know “what the future partnership [between the UK and the EU] would be” after Brexit. It’s an admission that we probably won’t get what we want from the Brexit negotiations, that her 12-point plan won’t survive contact with the enemy.

Even worse, May’s criticism of IndyRef2 is purely that it’s badly timed:

“”Right now, we should be working together, not pulling apart. For that reason, I say to the SNP: now is not the time.”

“Now is not the time”, but some time in the future will be? So when? May has ruled out an IndyRef2 before Article 50 negotiations have started, and also during those negotiations. Furthermore, she’s said that having an IndyRef2 would be unfair unless the Scottish people know in definite terms what the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU is.

The only option left is to have IndyRef2 once Article 50 negotiations are completed, presumably when all the EU (and hopefully UK) parliaments are voting on the agreed terms.

Isn’t that a referendum on the terms of the deal?

So why is it OK to offer Scotland a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal but that any such referendum for the UK would be to ‘defy the will of the people’ and as such unnecessary? Over to you, Tim Farron.

‘Competence’ May?

There was an easy way out of this mess — it was not the surprising, unsolvable puzzle that Theresa May has made it seem. A bolder, more canny politician would have called the SNP’s bluff.

The polls are shaky at best on IndyRef2. The SNP argue that ‘Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain in the EU’, and that support for independence is at an all-time high of 46%. That’s the pro-IndyRef2 campaign wheeling out their biggest gun and it’s still not majority support. The same report also states that Euroscepticism in Scotland is at its highest level of 67%.

Support for Scottish independence over time, source: Scottish Social Attitudes

So rather than antagonise the Scots by denying them an IndyRef2 and reminding them that they’re still actually ruled by Westminster, call the referendum. But do it quickly, before the end of 2017.

Six months should be enough to prepare and run a referendum campaign; the pro-referendum side already has a campaign website while the government has Theresa May’s 12-point plan to explicitly state what a post-Brexit Scotland will look like.

Judging by the polls, and if the PM and her cabinet genuinely have the confidence in their Brexit policies that they display in interviews, they should be confident of winning that quick referendum. That victory would destroy Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership and possibly the SNP’s entire purpose for being. It would also put Scotland firmly in the PM’s pocket when she does finally go into the Article 50 talks.

The delay to the Brexit process would be obviously blamed on the SNP too, probably to the benefit of the Conservative party. The extra time would also give David ‘Dunno’ Davis a bit more time to fully understand the sheer scope and scale of his brief.

Even more usefully, the delay would give France and Germany time to hold their general elections, meaning that when Brexit negotiations do start — perhaps in January 2018 — the government will know who they are dealing with.

Instead, we got a two-stage bungle.

So:

Instead of turning the situation to her advantage, Theresa May has undermined her ‘no second Brexit referendum, will of the people’ stance for the UK. Why is it OK for Scotland to have a referendum on the final Brexit deal but not the UK?

Also, by not shutting down all talk of IndyRef2, May has strengthened Nicola Sturgeon’s position as leader of Scotland and her campaign for Scottish independence. May now has a knife to her back as she enters Article 50 negotiations: should anything go awry — such as a €60bn fee that can’t be negotiated away — Sturgeon will no doubt raise the matter of IndyRef2 again, potentially unleashing chaos mid-talks.

All this in two minute-long statements, responding to an obvious SNP move, from a politician we were promised was at least a competent safe pair of hands for tricky times? We can only hope May sees her error and accepts the SNP’s compromise of withdrawing IndyRef2 in return for the UK remaining in the EU Single Market. Don’t hold your breath.