Downing Street insisted on Friday there was no rift with Nicola Sturgeon in the wake of reports that the First Minister was no longer welcome at Number 10.
Theresa May’s top advisers insisted the Prime Minister was “absolutely committed” to engaging with Holyrood, after an unnamed minister was quoted as saying that Ms Sturgeon would in future only be granted meetings with Scottish Secretary David Mundell as “he is at the same level as her”.
The story of the apparent downgrading of the First Minister sparked a social media storm among supporters of both the Tories and SNP, and risks pouring fuel on a growing constitutional crisis over Brexit.
Downing Street did not directly reject the suggestion that access to the Prime Minister had been withdrawn, but instead said that “it did not recognise the comments”.
Ms Sturgeon and Mrs May have not met since March which is in itself unusual given the current political turmoil.
The last plenary session of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), which brings together the Prime Minister and leaders of the devolved nations, took place at the end of January. At that time the UK government committed to “intensify” its dialogue with the Scottish Government on Brexit but no meetings have taken place since and there are none in the diary.
The unnamed minister who sparked the story told the Daily Mail that Ms Sturgeon would “no longer get the same access to the Prime Minister”.
“She should be meeting David Mundell because he is at the same level as her.”
The newspaper reported that UK ministers want to avoid elevating Ms Sturgeon’s profile. Scottish Government sources claimed the reports were a sign of Mrs May’s weakness following her poor general election result.
A UK government spokeswoman said last night: “We are absolutely committed to engaging with the Scottish Government and will continue to do so on all levels. “The level of engagement over recent months has been unprecedented, including numerous meetings and calls between ministers and officials.”
Mrs May and Ms Sturgeon last met for an hour at a Glasgow hotel in March ahead of the triggering of Article 50, which launched the formal Brexit process.
The Scottish Government has called for top-level JMC meetings to be held more regularly in an attempt to bridge the gulf between the two administrations over the UK’s departure from the EU.
The First Minister will be offered weekly meetings with Mr Mundell and Lord Duncan, the newly-appointed Scotland Office minister, according to reports.
A Scottish Government source responded to the comments by saying: “Theresa May is a badly weakened Prime Minister, but it speaks volumes if she now doesn’t feel confident enough to meet the First Minister. And David Mundell’s credibility is in tatters after his failure to stand up for Scotland over the Tories’ grubby deal with the DUP.”
The Scottish Government has launched a formal dispute process through the JMC over the £1 billion agreement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists, which secured vital support for Mrs May’s minority government.
As part of that process, which Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay this week confirmed would be pursued with the support of the Welsh Government, Bute House could demand a showdown between Ms Sturgeon and Mrs May at a special JMC plenary meeting to resolve the dispute.
Ms Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones have both also threatened to withhold consent for legislation to implement Brexit, in a move that could spark an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
The First Minister was the first party leader to meet the Prime Minister days after she entered Downing Street in July 2016.
At the time, Mrs May said her administration would be “fully engaging with the Scottish Government in the forthcoming negotiations about the UK’s exit from the European Union”. Following the visit it is understood that some senior party figures believed such a policy made Ms Sturgeon look like an international dignitary rather than a leader of a devolved nation.