The two-year countdown to the UK leaving the European Union will begin on 29 March, Downing Street has confirmed, with Article 50 to be triggered next Wednesday.
The announcement sparked a row with Scottish ministers, who complained that they found out the date from media reports despite months of talks with devolved administrations to find a common position on Brexit.
MSPs will today begin debating a Scottish Parliament motion calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence, to be held in late 2018 or early 2019.
Wording proposed by the Scottish Government confirms that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could be flexible on her timetable for a second vote, with the motion calling for a referendum “when there is clarity over the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, and around the point at which the UK leaves the EU in spring 2019”.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said the motion confirmed that a second referendum “couldn’t possibly” be held before Brexit.
“[Nicola Sturgeon] is no longer wedded or tied to the idea that it would happen before the UK left the EU,” Ms Dugdale said. “That’s a very significant concession and points to the fact that any future referendum is now likely to happen post Brexit.”
Holyrood will pass the motion on Wednesday, with SNP and Green MSPs backing the call, but Theresa May has said she will block an independence vote at least until the UK has left the EU.
Yesterday Ms Dugdale said Labour MPs would vote against a request to hold an independence referendum before Brexit, despite Jeremy Corbyn earlier saying it would be “absolutely fine”. A spokesman for Mr Corbyn said the UK Labour leader still believes that Westminster should not block a referendum.
Ms Dugdale accused the Scottish Greens of failing to respect their own manifesto on a second independence referendum, and downgrading environmental concerns to “22 or 23 on their list of priorities” in supporting the SNP’s agenda.
“There are at least five occasions where Nicola Sturgeon has ignored the will of the Scottish Parliament,” Ms Dugdale added, pointing to votes calling for a ban on fracking and condemning the Scottish Government’s record on education. “I will take any suggestion that the will of parliament should be accepted with a pinch of salt after the vote on Wednesday.”
Speaking in Swansea on the first stop of a UK tour to build support for her Brexit plan, the Prime Minister said: “I am very clear that I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom that works for everyone across the United Kingdom and all parts of the UK when we enter these negotiations.
“We are going to be out there, negotiating hard, delivering on what the British people voted for.”
The Prime Minister is expected to visit Scotland before Article 50 is triggered as part of her UK-wide tour.
Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, informed the office of European Council president Donald Tusk yesterday of the Prime Minister’s plans. Mr Tusk has said the EU will respond within 48 hours to the letter notifying it of the UK’s intention to leave.
However, talks are not expected to begin in earnest until after elections in France and Germany.
The Scottish Government’s Brexit minister criticised his UK counterparts after claiming they “forgot” to inform Scotland of the date when Article 50 will be triggered.
Mike Russell, who has been in talks between London and Edinburgh on Brexit as a member of the joint ministerial committee (JMC), said he only found out the Article 50 date when it was reported by the BBC.
Mr Russell tweeted: “Thank you @BBCNews for letting JMC members like me know that #Article50 is to be triggered next week. @GOVUK somehow forgot to inform us.”
The SNP’s Europe spokesman at Westminster, Stephen Gethins, said the lack of agreement with devolved administrations before triggering Brexit showed why a second independence referendum was necessary.
“Today’s announcement that the Prime Minister will push ahead and unilaterally trigger Article 50 shatters beyond repair any notion or position that the Prime Minister is seeking a UK-wide agreement,” Mr Gethins said.
“For nine months since the EU referendum, there has been no attempt by the UK government to seek a meaningful discussion or agreement.”
But Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont dismissed the SNP’s complaints as “yet more hypocrisy”, saying: “It finds any excuse to complain about a perceived slight.”
Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie said the party’s MSPs would use Wednesday’s vote to call for 16- and 17-year-olds to be guaranteed a say in any future independence referendum.
He said: “The people of Scotland deserve to have a choice, and it’s appalling to see anti-democratic Tories trying to close down our options, while a feeble Labour Party simply rolls over on what will be a devastating hard Brexit we did not vote for.”