Fearing this might be her last Christmas at the First Minister’s official residence, she had been hoping to see Charlotte Square dusted with a picture postcard sprinkling of snow. Instead the overcast sky and sodden turf served to make her pensive mood more sullen.
Then it happened. The moment that changed her Christmas beyond all her most fevered wishes…
“First Minister, there’s a call for you,” said her Deputy Permanent Secretary, “it’s the Prime minister, he wishes to speak to you with some urgency.”
“Really? Whatever for? He’s already made his sham post-election courtesy call. Unless he’s offering me an independence referendum I’d rather be at the dentists or in A&E than speak to him again.”
The First Minister’s contempt for Boris Johnson was biting.
The DPS did not relent, however. “His Permanent Secretary was most insistent and said he would put the Prime Minister through immediately, he’s holding on the line now”.
“Oh, all right then, I’ll take it in the drawing room, but make sure it’s recorded, I’m not having him saying one thing to me and leaking a different story to the English media.”
She strode off to her favourite antique sofa, sat down and picked up the receiver, “First Minister here”, she said in an intentionally clipped tone as if she had been rudely disturbed.
“Good morning First Minister, I am so glad we can speak, I have some serious news I must impart to you before anyone other. I do so hope it will make your Christmas brighter and bring great jollity at this joyous time of year,” said Prime Minister Johnson.
Indifferent already, the First Minister decided to be curt in reply, “I don’t have a great deal of time, I was just going to do some last minute Christmas shopping…”
But before she could say anymore the Prime Minster spoke over her, “I’ve decided to be your personal Father Christmas. I received your letter to Santa, that formal request for a Section 30 Order, and after some more thought, I’ve discussed it with my Cabinet and it is agreed. You can have your Christmas wish, you can have the referendum. The procedures are already in hand and I shall be announcing it to the country immediately after this call.”
Sturgeon was for once, momentarily lost for words. The pause was interrupted only by Boris Johnson saying, “First Minister, are you still there, did you hear me, I am agreeing to your request for a referendum.”
Full of mixed emotions ranging from bewilderment to anger, and worry to puzzlement, Sturgeon gathered herself. There must be more to this she mused; only last Friday Johnson had called and ruled out any referendum, so why the change of heart, was there a concealed plan? There’s always a concealed plan, she thought, for she always concealed her own intentions behind a wall of spin and knew Johnson did the same.
“Well it’s good to know you now see things my way,” she said “the Scottish people demanded a referendum in the general election and it’s only right we should have the choice to decide to have one.” She chose her words carefully but they still came out through gritted teeth. Sturgeon did not want a referendum at all, her real wish was to nurse a sense of grievance about being denied a referendum.
Johnson knew her game and Sturgeon now knew Johnson knew it. He was calling her bluff and enjoying the moment almost as much as hearing the election night’s exit poll that told him he had won.
Sturgeon would now have to find ways of delaying the actual vote until after the Holyrood elections in 2021, and would have to find some new grievances, and fast.
“Oh don’t misunderstand me First Minister” Johnson went on. “When I say there shall be a referendum I mean of course I am recommending it be held under the strictest of terms. Such a constitutional matter is reserved to Westminster and I shall be announcing it must take place within the next six months so there is an end to constitutional wrangling and you can get on with the day job.”
“Now that we are getting Brexit done I am intent on healing the country’s deep wounds. I want to build one nation in harmony and at peace with itself. We cannot go on being set against each other – and that requires me to address your wish for Scottish succession that divides Scotland, as much as it needs me to heal the Brexit divide across the UK”
“Accordingly we must have the Scottish referendum by May next year and it will be based upon the register used for the general election. All Scots, by which I mean those people living in the rest of the UK or around the world who can show they were on the Scottish general election register in the last fifteen years, will be entitled to a postal vote. I’m sure you will agree it is important that as many Scots are given the franchise in such an important decision.”
“The question will be set by the Electoral Commission using the terms to “leave or remain” in the United Kingdom, as that phrasing is known to be the least pejorative and most balanced.” Prime Minister Johnson paused to let the First Minister respond.
“I don’t find those arrangements at all acceptable, we shall not submit to any imposition. My Scottish Government shall decide who votes on what question and when.” Sturgeon said in full-blown anger, her face screwing up as she spat the words out. Her fists had instinctively clenched and the pencil in her right hand snapped.
The Prime Minister was ready for this and replied, “As I said, I am announcing my decision to the country from Downing Street in a few minutes. If you wish to reject this very fair offer that can allow the Scottish people to move on from bitter division and rancour it will be on your head. I shall leave it for Scots to judge if you have the people or only your party at heart. Have a Merry Christmas.” The line went dead.
It was now pouring outside Bute House.
Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament.