Scott Macnab: Juggling act required of new PM Theresa May

Theresa May is congratulated on her Conservative Party leadership win by her husband Philip. Picture: AFP/Getty
Theresa May is congratulated on her Conservative Party leadership win by her husband Philip. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Theresa May will need to keep several balls in play, but she must be careful not to drop the Scottish one, writes Scott Macnab

Theresa May has already made it clear that she is ready for the looming Scottish independence rematch, as she spelled out her intention to make a “passionate case” for Scotland’s place in the union in a plea to party activists north of the Border.

But as Mrs May prepares to assume the highest office in the United Kingdom later today, the magnitude of the task is resolving the increasingly fragmented constitutional situation will surely be front and centre of her thoughts.

Her foremost responsibility of pulling Britain out of Europe will be complex enough. But she must achieve this while performing a fraught egg and spoon race as she seeks to avoid “dropping” Scotland along the way and shattering the 300-year-old British union. Scots may just decide their future is safer in the EU than the turmoil which has engulfed the UK in the aftermath of a Brexit decision largely driven by voters south of the Border.

A second independence referendum increasingly seems like a matter of time, with the prospect of Nicola Sturgeon securing some kind of de facto deal which would allow Scotland to retain its EU status while being part of the UK looking more forlorn. But while Nationalists are straining at the leash to go again after the Brexit vote, you wonder if the same stomach for a fight exists on the pro-union side.

It emerged over the weekend that were unlikely to see another “Better Together” style umbrella group. Labour leaders say the close association they were seen to have forged with the Tories during this period as a key factor in the party’s decline north of the Border in recent years. The Liberal Democrats have similar qualms. And who would head up such a drive? Alistair Darling is unlikely to want a return to the infighting and backstabbing which characterised so much of the pro-union campaign last time around. It’s hard to think of another figurehead emerging who the pro-union campaign could unite around.

Ruth Davidson has been an effective opposition leader in Scotland and came of age as a politician during the last referendum campaign. But despite the revival in Tory fortunes, she still only secured the support of about a fifth of the Scottish electorate in the election earlier this year. The absence of an obvious figurehead for the union in Indyref2 could be a real problem for Mrs May. As a Remainer who is now negotiating the country’s exit from the EU, she herself faces something of a credibility issue on the subject of referendums which Nationalists won’t be slow to remind her of.

Mrs May is also no great friend of the Scottish Parliament, having failed to vote on any bills providing greater devolution to Holyrood. She was also at the heart of the Project Fear campaign during the last independence referendum when, as Home Secretary, she warned that Scotland would be at greater risk of terrorist threat without the British security services.

You have to wonder whether the notoriously steely politician may even be inclined to withhold the authority needed from Westminster, which has responsibility for the constitution, to allow a second independence referendum to be held, despite Ms Davidson advising against this. Mrs May will follow David Cameron’s example and adopt an arms-length approach to Scotland, instead allowing Ms Davidson and Scottish Secretary David Mundell to take the lead.

The immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote has seen the authority drain from the Westminster political establishment as both the main parties are plunged into turmoil. The leaders of the Leave campaign have all quit, while the Bank of England is the only institution which seems to have had any semblance of a plan to tackle the economic turbulence which has ensued.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has at least seemed like a leader on top of events. It may have smacked of opportunism but as soon as it became clear that the scenario of Scots being dragged out of the EU against their will was a reality she seized the moment with an air of assured authority which belied the chaos at Westminster.

For Ms Sturgeon’s part, the success of an quickfire second referendum now hinges on the assurances she can gain from EU leaders in the weeks ahead that an independent Scotland would be allowed to remain in the bloc while the rest of the UK leaves. Former first minister Alex Salmond indicated at the weekend that this was now the main purpose of his successor’s talks with political leaders in Brussels.

French president François Hollande and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy have both insisted they will deal only with the UK government in Brexit negotiations, so its seems unlikely that Scotland can secure some kind of de facto EU “associate status” while still in the UK.

But there appears to be a tide of sympathy for Scotland’s situation sweeping across Europe. Mr Salmond teased Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in the Commons yesterday after a string of polls across the continent showed widespread support among citizens in nations like France, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden for Scotland joining the EU if it became an independent nation as a result of Brexit.

And whereas Scotland’s independence cause was once hampered by nations like Spain keen not to encourage breakaway movements, the axis of self-interest within the bloc – which governs almost all decision-making in Brussels – may be shifting on this issue. The Brexit vote has been as much of a political earthquake for the EU as Scotland. The bloc is now fighting for its life, with fear that the UK’s departure may instigate an exodus with other nations like the Netherlands poised to follow. It’s not in their interests to see a departing member state go off and flourish.

Perhaps the opening of the Brussels door to an independent Scotland may help to thwart this. Many eurocrats may just be keen to let the world see the consequences of leaving the EU – the break-up of the British state.