Nick Clegg has warned unionists they face a tougher fight against a “compelling” case for Scottish independence following Brexit.
The former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats said a “very serious clash” between different parts of the UK was inevitable once Brexit becomes a reality, and said the campaign to preserve the union in a second independence referendum would be “incredibly difficult”.
Speaking at a gathering of Westminster political journalists, Mr Clegg also predicted a “major political conflagration” within the Conservative Party over tensions between the desire for new free trade deals and the demand for “untrammelled sovereignty” following Brexit.
Before the EU referendum, Mr Clegg warned of the risk of Scotland voting for independence if the UK left the EU. Yesterday he went further, saying of Brexit: “I think it will, maybe on a slightly delayed timetable, provoke a very serious clash between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.”
He added: “If the clash becomes a clash about the status of the opinion of English voters who want to leave the European Union compared to the status of the opinion of Scottish voters that want to leave, it’s going to be incredibly difficult.
“It’s going to be incredibly difficult to say to Scottish voters that they should swallow their reservations and vote for the union nonetheless.
“It really distresses me that it is going to be very difficult to mount a powerful argument when there is such a compelling case for those who are saying look, we have been forced into this situation, we’ve been forced by events entirely beyond our control.”
Predicting that Brexit negotiations would take longer than the two years set out Article 50, Mr Clegg said slow progress would inevitably foster a “betrayal myth” among Tory backbenchers, who will blame their leadership for failing to pull Britain out immediately after the June 23 vote.
He claimed the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox would quit the government within 18 months because it will be impossible to negotiate international trade agreements unless the UK leaves the EU customs union - something which is “still an open question in Whitehall”.
Mr Clegg said the goals of asserting the UK’s sovereignty over trade rules while seeking new agreements after Brexit were “mutually incompatible”. “That great fault line between free trade and a hankering for the kind of 19th-century parliamentary sovereignty of the days of gunboat diplomacy has only been deferred.”