Theresa May has crushed parliamentary resistance to Brexit after MPs and peers gave her a free hand to start exit negotiations, but Downing Street was left with a new dilemma over Scottish independence.
Mrs May easily secured the passage of the bill allowing her to start Brexit negotiations late on Monday. She will launch the two-year Article 50 divorce process in the last week of March, immediately after the EU’s 60th birthday celebrations in Rome.
But her parliamentary victory was overshadowed by a pre-emptive strike by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, who demanded on Monday morning that a second Scottish independence referendum be held within two years, before Brexit is finalised.
Mrs May will refuse to sanction a referendum on Mrs Sturgeon’s preferred timetable, and will insist that any second vote must take place after March 2019, when the new EU settlement is clear. One option would be a second Scottish independence referendum in May 2019.
Mrs May is formally reserving her position until Scotland’s parliament in Holyrood votes on whether to demand a second referendum, but government officials have indicated that the prime minister would have no choice but to grant the request.
The prime minister is anxious to avoid entangling the timetable for Brexit with Scottish independence, which could create a serious political headache for a prime minister who would be forced to fight on two fronts.
But if Mrs May delays a second Scottish independence referendum, it could fuel Scottish grievances about Brexit. Scotland voted 62 per cent to 38 per cent against the UK leaving the EU in last June’s EU referendum.
SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson said on Monday night that he did not want to “sit in the back of the Tory Brexit bus and see the prime minister drive us off a Brexit cliff”.
The prime minister’s Scottish problem took the shine off her defeat of pro-EU critics in Westminster on Monday night, after MPs and peers backed the legislation that gives her the power to start Brexit. The legislation will gain royal assent on Tuesday without any amendments.
There had been speculation that Mrs May would start the Article 50 process on Tuesday. Downing Street denied on Monday that it had pushed back the date until the end of March following Mrs Sturgeon’s intervention.
The Article 50 bill returned to the House of Commons on Monday evening after the prime minister suffered two defeats in the House of Lords in the past two weeks.
Peers, including a clutch of Conservatives, had backed a proposal to offer EU citizens living in the UK a unilateral guarantee of their rights, as well as a separate plan to give parliament a “meaningful” vote on the final terms of Britain’s exit deal.
Although several pro-EU Tories spoke out in favour of the amendments during the Commons debate on Monday, most held back from rebelling against Mrs May. Just two voted against her on the EU citizens measure, while nine abstained on the “meaningful vote” amendment.
The MPs accepted Brexit secretary David Davis’s verbal assurances that parliament would have a role in the Brexit process but the government had not offered them the further undertakings they had sought, so they felt unable to either back the amendment or to vote against it, according to one person with knowledge of their thinking.
After the votes by MPs, the bill returned to the Lords on Monday night, where peers voted heavily to reject both of their own amendments, completing the bill’s legislative progress.
Mr Davis said after the vote that the UK was now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for the country in a generation.
“We will trigger Article 50 by the end of this month as planned and deliver an outcome that works in the interests of the whole of the UK,” he said.
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