Ruth Davidson said Scotland “cannot be a bolt-on” in UK government negotiations with Europe, warning that the unity of the UK was being tested by the outcome of the EU referendum.
Following talks with Theresa May yesterday, who will be installed as Prime Minister this evening, Ms Davidson called for membership of the European Single Market to be preserved, and for EU nationals already in the UK to have their rights and status guaranteed.
She left the door open to a second vote on EU membership if circumstances change, stating: “The honest answer is I don’t know what’s going to happen – I think it would be highly unlikely.”
Ms Davidson’s comments were echoed by Tory Scottish Secretary David Mundell MP, who said he was “open” to the idea of Scotland being given a “different deal” with the EU in recognition that most Scots voted to remain in the 28-nation bloc. SNP leaders have warned a second independence referendum could be called if Scotland is taken out of Europe against its will.
The appeal to retain key benefits of EU membership signals the start of a debate within the Conservative Party that will define the early stages of Ms May’s premiership as she launches Brexit negotiations.
Many Brexit-supporting Tory MPs want to see the UK leave the single market entirely to put an end to the free movement of EU nationals. Ms May has pledged that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Speaking after their meeting, Ms Davidson said: “There’s no point hiding from the fact that the result is testing this country’s sense of unity.
“For us in Scotland, where people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, the result is testing the bounds of the Union as well.
“The SNP is, as usual for a nationalist party, trying to seize on a moment of doubt and uncertainty to declare that the shining star of independence is the answer, and is always the answer.
“It’s also trying to claim that as a result of Brexit, there is now a massive groundswell of support for a second independence referendum. It’s simply not true.”
Accusing the SNP of a “grievance narrative” that was “ramped up to 11” in the wake of the EU referendum result, Ms Davidson claimed the Brexit vote had weakened the case for independence, insisting only a minority supported holding a second vote.
But she urged Mrs May to begin making the “positive, practical case” for Scotland to remain in the UK by ensuring her Brexit negotiation effort “embeds all parts of our Union within it”.
The Scottish Tory leader said: “I think we need a truly pan-UK effort to ensure that all voices are heard. I want Nicola Sturgeon involved. I want [First Minister of Wales] Carwyn Jones involved. I want [Mayor of London] Sadiq Khan round that table.
“I want all of our nations and regions to have their say, and not just because I think they would add to the debate, but because the Union demands it.
“Scotland cannot be a bolt-on part of the UK government. If we want to keep the Union together, it must be integral to all that it does.”
On the eve of his departure, Ms Davidson also met Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street, praising his “fantastic talent”. She said: “Sometimes the independence referendum felt like you were in the trenches, and I’d rather have had him in the trenches with me than not.”
Mr Cameron is expected to visit Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the Queen at around 4pm today, after leading a final session of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Yesterday he chaired his final Cabinet meeting, with a removals van spotted dropping off packing boxes as ministers walked into Downing Street. Senior roles in Mrs May’s administration could be announced as early as tonight as she launches a reshuffle to assemble her team.
Mr Mundell said: “Ruth set out earlier that the priority for Scots is to remain part of the single European market and get the opportunities for Scottish business from that market and we will be making that very clear.
“My role is to ensure Scotland gets the best possible deal and that deal involves clearly being part of the single market. I am open to Scotland having a slightly different deal if that’s doable. But we have to look at what’s doable.”