Euan McColm: May meeting leaves Sturgeon short of options

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon pose for the cameras in Bute House. Picture: James Glossop/Getty
Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon pose for the cameras in Bute House. Picture: James Glossop/Getty
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For all the talk of seeking ways to protect Scotland from Brexit, the First Minister has little room for manoeuvre after the Bute House meeting

If First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a flaw, perhaps it’s that she just cares too much. Selfless, devoid of cynicism, utterly unlike any other senior politician, Sturgeon is a marvellous mixture of wisdom and compassion whose only desire is to serve all Scots, including the majority who reject the SNP’s wish to break up the United Kingdom.

You’ll have your own special memories of the First Minister’s remarkable capacity to do only good, I’m sure. Perhaps you’re thinking of the time she posed for a selfie with your Aunt Sarah, or the time she posed for a selfie with your next-door neighbour’s mother-in-law. Maybe, like me, you’re thinking of that time she tweeted Andy Murray to wish him good luck at the tennis.

Since last month’s referendum on EU membership, when the UK-wide vote to leave swept away Scotland’s desire to remain, the First Minister has been at her most deeply compassionate.

Scots are devastated by this turn of events – and if you don’t believe me, just ask the First Minister – and Sturgeon has made protecting our place in Europe her priority.

So far, this has involved a number of meetings-cum-photo-opportunities with EU officials and honorary consuls.

But, on Friday, things took a turn for the serious when new Prime Minister Theresa May travelled north to Edinburgh for her first one-to-one meeting with Sturgeon.

The First Minister’s objective was clear. She has said that there are going to be “deeply damaging and painful consequences of the process of trying to extricate the UK from the EU,” and that she wishes to try to protect Scotland from them.

May, whose first speech as Prime Minister on Wednesday was heavy on her commitment to the UK – a Union, she said, not just of nations but of people – was willing to listen to Sturgeon’s options, she insisted.

Both leaders came away from Friday’s meeting reporting on its positive nature. It was almost as if a solution to the problem Sturgeon describes might easily be found.

But it simply cannot be done.

The First Minister is undoubtedly correct that there are likely to be serious, negative consequences to the process of the UK leaving the EU. But if this is so, then she surely knows that there would be serious negative consequences to Scotland leaving the UK, especially at such a time of upheaval.

Among the reasons for the Yes campaign’s defeat in 2014 was deep uncertainty over the detail of how an independent Scotland would go about its business. Former first minister Alex Salmond made a series of blithe assertions – Scotland would continue as a member of the EU, the rest of the UK would welcome us into a currency union – that simply couldn’t withstand even the slightest scrutiny.

When it came to the crunch, conservative Scots voters rejected the SNP’s proposals and Salmond resigned.

Sturgeon may be setting a similar course for herself right now.

The Scottish Government’s own figures show that independence now would mean a £15 billion deficit for Scotland. It’s certainly true that Brexit has had its effect on the UK economy, with the value of sterling dropping and further uncertainty ahead, so how adding even greater financial problems for Scotland makes sense is not easy to see.

Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling – who led the Better Together campaign in 2014 – suggests that Sturgeon doesn’t want a rerun of the independence referendum any quicker than he does. Defeat for Sturgeon would, inevitably, mean the end of her career and serious damage to the SNP’s hard-won credibility.

Senior nationalists say that some of that £15bn deficit could be dealt with if Scotland gets EU membership and can attract some financial services companies looking at leaving London following Brexit.

There are too many ifs and buts in this plan for comfort.

Sturgeon’s civil servants have been instructed to draw up plans for a second independence referendum, the threat of which hung over the First Minister’s meeting with May on Friday.

But civil servants cannot draw up new opinion polls showing majority support for Scottish independence. Even the prospect of Brexit hasn’t given the nationalists the fillip they hoped for.

Sturgeon and May are now engaged in a tricky game in which the former appears to have the upper hand. Sturgeon, respectful and statesmanlike as she may have been during the PM’s visit, has that threat of an independence referendum, after all.

May appears to have most to lose. Having made much of her unionist credentials and paid due reverence to Scotland on Friday, she may appear to be willing to bend over backwards to keep the troublesome Jocks happy.

But the reality is that May cannot assist Sturgeon in getting the deal for Scotland that she says she wants.

The First Minister might sound convincing when it comes to talk of finding a way to protect Scotland’s place in the EU and the Prime Minister might sound like she’s right behind that quest for a solution. However, Scotland is not an independent country and is in no position to negotiate a deal with Europe that, in any way, goes behind the back of Brexit.

Scotland, as part of the UK, is on its way out of the EU. We are tied to the decision made by a majority of UK citizens and no amount of spin and no number of photo opportunities can change that.

Sturgeon says that a second independence referendum is now highly likely. I’m not so sure.

On Friday, May made the point that Scots have already had a say on their place in the UK. The size of the Yes campaign’s defeat – by 11 points – in 2014 must surely give the PM confidence while concentrating the FM’s mind.

Nicola Sturgeon has appeared the very model of dynamic leadership in the aftermath of the UK’s decision to leave Europe, but she is in danger of painting herself into a corner and giving herself no option but to call a referendum she has no guarantee of winning.