Theresa May is taking no chances when it comes to the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence being called.
The UK Prime Minister is bracing for Nicola Sturgeon to fire the starting gun on another plebiscite to coincide with her announcement to European leaders than Britain will be leaving the EU.
May is currently weighing up whether or not to allow the referendum to go ahead and be legally binding, as in 2014, or leave Sturgeon calling only a ‘consultative’ referendum.
Either option is fraught with danger for the Prime Minister – blocking a referendum risks looking unconstitutional and undemocratic, but allowing it could spark outcry among unionists at Holyrood and Westminster.
But with optics and timing both equally important in modern politics, we look at just how and when such an announcement could be made by the Scottish Government.
Will indyref2 be announced with subtlety, or with glitz and glamour?
Perhaps one of the main lessons that Nicola Sturgeon can learn from her predecessor Alex Salmond is not to allow a convoluted release of the date and the campaign launches.
The fateful date of 18th October 2014 was firstly leaked to the first edition of the newly launched Sun on Sunday newspaper, before Ministers seemingly had a change of heart.
By late March 2013, a full year after that ‘leak’ – Salmond briefed that he was due to announce the date to the Scottish Parliament, which he duly did.
To coincide with that, a convoluted stunt involved apprentice steelworkers welding the date onto what was controversially revealed to be Danish steel.
It was a full two months from that announcement that official Yes campaign was launched by Salmond urging Scots to sign a Yes declaration at a ‘star-studded’ event at an Edinburgh cinema.
Nicola Sturgeon, who played a key role in that campaign, should be keen to avoid any similar mis-steps, and a launch in instalments seems like just that on reflection.
Anything May can do
Theresa May, who kept a deliberately, some would argue cynically low profile during the 2016 EU referendum, has seamlessly began to walk and talk like a Brexiteer.
Thus, her announcement that she has officially triggered Article 50 (which notifies the EU that Britain is leaving) should be a moment of triumph less than a year into her premiership.
With Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn posted missing on this issue so far, May’s only battle on the EU is with some of her more belligerent backbenchers on either side.
She will need to craft a speech that still gives nods to disappointed remainers while emphatically claiming that Britain can still be a success going it alone.
While May, per today’s sources, is expecting a swift move from Nicola Sturgeon, it isn’t known if she has prepared for the First Minister to try and directly steal her thunder.
An almost instantaneous announcement from Nicola Sturgeon firmly lets people know that the SNP leader believes her hands are tied by Brexit.
Even an announcement in advance that Article 50 will trigger not only Britain’s exit from the EU but another referendum will do much to allow Sturgeon to seize the news agenda from the Prime Minister.
Patience is a Virtue
Conversely, Sturgeon will be keen to avoid being labelled cynical or opportunistic in her pursuit of independence.
Pinning another referendum to Brexit is good politics, but rushing the announcement to coincide with the Article 50 triggering might seem like Sturgeon was a little too keen to fire the starting gun.
If that is the case, and the summer of 2018 is being lined up for a potential indyref2 date, then Sturgeon might be best placed to hold off until later in the Spring to make her big announcement.
Considering that, as some Brexiteers are keen to point out, some of the more alarming economic shocks predicted in the wake of June 23rd last year haven’t yet come to pass.
Optimistic leave backers will tell you that they will never happen and it was just scaremongering from a rattled elite.
Others will point out that as Article 50 hasn’t been triggered, the economic impact is yet to be felt.
If the economic outlook worsens following Theresa May’s notice of withdrawal, then Sturgeon might reckon that she is better biding her time before readying Scots for another ballot box battle.
Glitz or Gravitas?
The most important question might not be when or if – but how.
There will be a lot of eyes on Nicola Sturgeon when she makes the announcement on a second referendum on independence (presuming she decides to make that announcement herself).
As noted earlier, Sturgeon would be smart to avoid the stuttering approach of Salmond and announce the referendum, name a date, and start a campaign roughly within the same 24-hour timeframe.
Is Sturgeon still the cross-country star that she was in 2015 when her face adorned the literature of SNP candidates? A failure to win a majority in 2016 was a major shock for Sturgeon and her team.
So she could be wise to not dominate the centre stage of any announcement too much – although Salmond’s collegiate approach in 2013 arguably gave lesser lights like Patrick Harvie and Colin Fox too much houseroom.
One thing is clear no matter how or when the plans are announced – Theresa May is taking the threat of the UK breaking up very seriously.
The Prime Minister is even urging Scots to use council elections to reject nationalism – as sure a sign as any that No10 believes an announcement from Nicola Sturgeon is imminent.