Nicola Sturgeon has challenged Boris Johnson to a public debate on Scottish independence as she branded the new Tory leader’s government “dangerous” over its pursuit of Brexit.
The Prime Minister, making his first official visit to Scotland yesterday since entering Downing Street, was greeted by loud booing and jeering from a crowd of about 200 people gathered outside Bute House.
Mr Johnson arrived at the First Minister’s official residence in Edinburgh for talks with the SNP leader, where he spent around an hour before leaving the Georgian terrace via the back door.
Ms Sturgeon said afterwards she had a “robust exchange of views” with the Conservative leader over Scottish independence, in which she made it clear the Scottish Government’s intention to pursue a second referendum on the matter in the wake of Brexit.
She continued: “He made the case for the Union and didn’t think Scotland had the right to choose. We had a toing and froing over the pros and cons of independence.
“At one point, I suggested we didn’t have that debate in Bute House and that we took the debate to the public and let them decide. I even suggested we might put it live on television.”
The First Minister added that she would consider over the remainder of the summer whether to accelerate the timetable for an indyref2, which would involve a formal request for a transfer of powers from Westminster to allow Holyrood to organise another constitutional plebiscite.
Mr Johnson and other senior Conservatives have repeatedly indicated they would block any such request for a Section 30 order.
Before travelling to Edinburgh yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister toured the Faslane naval base where the UK’s fleet of nuclear-armed submarines are maintained.
Speaking at the dockyard after spending time aboard HMS Victorious, he hit out at the SNP’s demands for another referendum. Asked if he would grant a Section 30 order he said: “In 2014 there was a historic vote. It was decided, by at least a ten-point margin.
“Everybody made it clear at the time, including the SNP I seem to recollect, that this was a once in a generation vote. I think the confidence in politics by the public would be undermined further if we were to go back on that.”
Mr Johnson said anyone suggesting he was the last Prime Minister of the UK was “grossly underestimating the UK”.
He added: “It would be wrong to go back on the promise to the people of the UK and above all to the people of Scotland that when they went to the polls in 2014 it was a once in a generation consultation, and they voted decisively and in my view were right.”
Following their Bute House talks, the SNP leader claimed it “spoke volumes” that Mr Johnson had chosen to visit a secure military establishment instead of meeting members of the public. “I’m slightly surprised that he didn’t have the chutzpah or the guts to go and meet people in Scotland,” she said. “I think it speaks volumes about the lack of confidence in his position and his ability to persuade people in Scotland that the path he’s taking is the right one.”
The Tory leader has made clear his administration will take the UK out of the EU with no deal unless Brussels agrees to renegotiate over long-running sticking points like the Irish backstop.
The First Minister strongly condemned this approach, which she claimed would have serious economic consequences for the country.
“After my discussions with Boris Johnson, behind all of the bluff and bluster, this is a government that is dangerous,” she added.
“I think the path that it is pursuing is a dangerous one for Scotland and for all of the UK.
“He says publicly – and he said it to me again today – that he wants a deal with the EU, but there is no clarity whatsoever about how he thinks he can get from the position now where he’s taking a very hard line – the Withdrawal Agreement is dead, the backstop is dead.
“If I listen to all of that and listen to what’s not being said as well as what is being said, I think that this is a government that is pursuing a no-deal strategy, however much they may deny that in public.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “I think, if he were in this room right now, he would deny this vehemently, but I think he wants a no-deal Brexit.
“Obviously, I made my opposition to a no-deal Brexit very clear.”
A Number 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister had used his meeting with Ms Sturgeon to stress that he was a “passionate believer in the power of the Union”.
“On Brexit, the Prime Minister said that while the Government’s preference is to negotiate a new deal which abolishes the anti-democratic backstop, the UK will be leaving the EU on 31 October come what may,” he added.