It looks likely Theresa May will trigger Article 50 tomorrow. Finally, after months of drift and dithering, the Prime Minister has shown a burst of speed and criticism-crushing single-mindedness. MPs and Lords have been pressed to drop amendments demanding final approval of the Brexit deal. But whether they do or don’t today, the Prime Minister’s strong-arm tactics prove democratic checks and balances are now regarded as unnecessary baggage inside No 10.
Even calls to slow down by Brexit cheerleaders like the Mail and Telegraph are falling on deaf ears – according to Tory backbencher Anna Soubry, elements of the British government want the UK to end talks with the EU within six months and “crash out” with no deal.
Scotland on Sunday suggests European leaders expect May to trigger exit talks this week and are preparing for a Brussels gathering on 6 April to respond to the UK’s formal letter of notification. One UK government official has reportedly said he “hoped” Article 50 could begin on Tuesday when May will address MPs, but certainly by the end of the week.
So Theresa May seems intent on steaming ahead and forcing her Brexit Bill through both chambers today, allowing her to trigger Article 50 tomorrow.
How then should Nicola Sturgeon respond? Should she announce her intention to hold a second independence referendum at this weekend’s SNP conference – I think she should.
Up till now the First Minister has been playing nice. She’s abided by the UK rules to prove Britain isn’t capable of giving Scotland a differentiated deal. That has come at a cost – there has been constant mention but no active campaigning for independence since 2014. That must change the minute Theresa May triggers Article 50, otherwise the next two years will be filled with just one narrative – a Conservative, hard-Brexit narrative which has been overwhelmingly rejected by Scots in Westminster elections and explicitly in last year’s European referendum.
Without an alternative, positive destination of an independent Scotland in Europe – be that the “halfway house” of EEA or the “full bhuna” of EU membership – Scottish opposition to Brexit over the next two years will be reduced to sniping from the sidelines over done deals. We’ve all had enough of that.
Some in the SNP worry that calling a new referendum this weekend will overshadow council elections in May and could cause local losses. But equally, it will look weak if Theresa May completely snubs Scottish Government demands for a differentiated deal tomorrow and there is no immediate response from Nicola Sturgeon, despite the fact that she officially placed the option of another referendum “on the table” four months ago. Political developments in Britain are unfolding at record pace. That’s not an argument for a panicked reaction – it is an argument for deftness and responsiveness. After all, we’ve all really known this moment would arrive since the Brexit vote last June.
Meanwhile an Ipsos Mori poll has put support for independence at 50 per cent – and whilst that still doesn’t represent a big shift since 2014, it’s actually remarkably stable given there has been no active campaigning for independence.
Labour and the Lib Dems are at sixes and sevens over whether to support indyref2. Jeremy Corbyn delighted the growing band of independence supporters within Scottish Labour this weekend by saying a second Scottish independence referendum would be “absolutely fine” and “should be held” if there was demand for it. He concluded: “I don’t think it’s the job of Westminster or the Labour Party to prevent people holding referenda.”
This is not the relaxed tone adopted by Scottish Labour, whose determination not to seize the moment and support independence will surely prompt the final stage of its protracted demise. So a few hours later a “clarification” was released explaining: “Jeremy reaffirmed our position that if the Scottish Parliament votes for a referendum, it would be wrong for Westminster to block it. But Labour continues to oppose a further referendum… and would campaign against independence if one were held.”
The Lib Dems have produced a similar guddle. Just before Scottish leader Willie Rennie made his “emotional case for the Union” at the party’s spring conference this weekend, former party leader Nick Clegg argued that Theresa May’s government should not “impose a fatwa” and obstruct another ballot on independence, “however unwelcome” such a vote might be.
Now of course it’s logically possible to support the Scottish Government’s right to call a fresh ballot whilst fully intending to campaign against change. It’s logically possible, but practically weird.
If opposition parties really believe a second indyref is the biggest waste of energy since 2014, if they believe a majority of voters are still perfectly happy with the result, even though the promise to retain EU membership through membership of the Union has been abandoned, if they worry that an indyref2 during Brexit negotiations would deplete already-stretched UK government resources, then why on earth back it?
Because the No camp believes it is certain to win – or because it concedes there is actually a moral case for another vote?
Still, the decision to hold a fresh referendum is easier than choosing the date. Since there will obviously be negotiations about indyref2 timing, Sturgeon must surely start off with her best, desired position – an autumn 2018 poll – and gather public support for that, to have the best chance of forcing May’s hand.
Veteran voices of the Yes movement are urging caution. Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader, says the Yes movement is not ready and another vote should be delayed until 2020 when the outcome of Brexit negotiations will be known.
Of course that means Scotland would be out of Europe and would spend the next three years with an undefined independence option hovering in the air. Surely we will know the content of a deal – if indeed there is one – long before Britain formally leaves?
I’d imagine many Scots will understand Nicola Sturgeon is being forced to react to the speedy chaos of Brexit and that’s why the mechanism to choose a different path must be put in place now before final plans have been made. It is now or never.
If Theresa May presses the Brexit button, Nicola Sturgeon should press the indyref2 button. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be a better time.