SNP bid to reset Brexit debate after indyref2 setback

Nicola Sturgeon reacts after delivering a bowl during a campaign visit to Liberton Bowling Club in Edinburgh South yesterday. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
Nicola Sturgeon reacts after delivering a bowl during a campaign visit to Liberton Bowling Club in Edinburgh South yesterday. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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The SNP will attempt to place Brexit at the heart of its election campaign with the launch of its manifesto this week, amid growing fears that the focus on a second independence referendum will lose the party seats.

Nicola Sturgeon will make membership of the European single market her top Brexit demand in her party’s manifesto in a bid to reduce pressure to call a second independence referendum.

The nationalists will seek to turn back the clock on their demands for indyref2 by arguing that winning the majority of Scottish seats in the general election gives them a mandate to push for a separate Brexit deal for Scotland.

Their manifesto, which will be unveiled on Tuesday, will demand a place at the negotiating table for the Scottish Government and the inclusion of its Brexit white paper in the UK’s negotiating strategy.

Both demands have already been ruled out by UK ministers, with Theresa May insisting she will negotiate on behalf of the whole country, and Brexit secretary David Davis telling Scottish ministers that single market membership for Scotland would create unacceptable trade barriers within the UK.

Placing the single market at the centre of the manifesto will be seen as an attempt to ease the momentum of demands for indyref2, which has eroded support for the nationalists and set Ruth Davidson’s party up for a historic result on 8 June.

Yesterday, Sturgeon said she remained committed to holding a second independence referendum by spring 2019.

Critics claimed the SNP’s position on Europe was “all over the place” and accused the nationalists of trying to play down their push for independence.

Scottish and UK ministers haven’t met to discuss Brexit since February, with talks said to be on hold until July at the earliest. In January, Sturgeon said she was “willing to put aside my preferred option of independence in the EU to see if we can explore a consensus and compromise option” involving single market membership.

However, that was followed by a vote in the Scottish Parliament formally requesting the powers to hold a second referendum, days before Article 50 was triggered to start the UK’s exit from the EU.

SNP Depute Leader Angus Robertson said the party’s manifesto would also set out a “real anti-austerity agenda” against further cuts to public sector spending, reversing the rise of in-work poverty, and reducing inequality.

“We will set out an alternative to unnecessary Tory austerity, back workers and families with fair pay and a fair social security system and back business with fresh support,” said Robertson.

“We will seek a mandate to strengthen Scotland’s hands in Brexit negotiations and stand against Tory attempts to negotiate away Scotland’s jobs and industries.”

The SNP will insist single market membership is the only way to protect Scotland’s food and drink sector from a catastrophic collapse in trade if the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal.

Brendan O’Hara, the SNP candidate in Argyll and Bute, said food and drink businesses in his area depend on single market access to sell to Europe. “A majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU but even many of those who voted to leave have real concerns about the extreme Brexit being pursued by the Tories,” said O’Hara.

He said a “chaotic” EU exit would seriously damage a food and drink sector worth £14.4bn to the Scottish economy. “The EU – Scotland’s biggest overseas regional food and drink export market – is of vital importance to the sector.

“No-one should underestimate the value of Scotch whisky to the UK economy. It generates £135 per second for the UK exchequer and last year Scotland exported more than £1 billion pounds worth of whisky directly into the European Union.

“But it’s not just access to the European Union that it is important, it’s also the ability to access other non-EU markets with a favourable tariff deal which has been negotiated by the European Union – and this will now be compromised.”

But a Conservative Party spokesman countered: “Only Theresa May has the strength and stability to negotiate a good deal for the whole of the United Kingdom. All a vote for the Scottish Nationalists will do is put Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to Downing Street, damaging the economy and making a mess of the Brexit negotiations.”

Scottish Labour election coordinator James Kelly MSP said: “The SNP promised that an independence referendum would be a once in a lifetime event. Instead Nicola Sturgeon has demanded one barely two and a half years later. No amount of spin will fool people into believing that the SNP aren’t desperate to divide Scotland again.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The SNP position on Europe is all over the place, so I am not sure giving them a place at any table would be a good idea.

“The priority should be for us to secure a public vote on the Brexit deal as it would be wrong for just a few politicians to decide whether the deal is acceptable or not.”