The SNP has put securing a second independence referendum ahead of supporting a vote on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal in the clearest signal yet that a hard Brexit would trigger a new bid to break up the UK.
Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the Nationalists would insist on the right to another independence referendum if one was held on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal, amid growing pressure for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British Medical Association yesterday issued new calls for a referendum that supporters claim could keep the UK in the EU.
On Saturday, 100,000 people protested outside Westminster to demand a vote on the Brexit deal, despite the Government’s insistence that it will not allow one to take place.
Mr Blackford suggested any ‘People’s Vote’ would have to be tied to a second independence referendum in case the rest of the UK chose for a second time to leave the EU, taking Britain out of the single market and customs union.
He said securing indyref2 came ahead of any vote on the terms of Brexit in the “ranking choice in terms of what our preference would be”.
And as Nicola Sturgeon assembled a new government in Edinburgh, her leader at Westminster said: “We must not lose sight of the option of having an independence referendum.”
Mr Blackford said: “What we’ve said is that if there was a proposition for a [second EU] vote, of course we wouldn’t stand in the way of that.
“What I would say, though is that we already have a mandate from the people of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament, if there is a change in circumstances, that we should have a discussion with the people of Scotland and a vote on independence.
“If we were talking about a ranking choice in terms of what our preference would be, it would very much be a decision of the Scottish people on our constitutional future, rather than anything else.
“If we are faced with a second EU vote, it’s about how Scotland’s position is respected within that. For example, if we end up in a situation where the rest of the UK voted no again, but Scotland voted to Remain, how is our position respected?”
The SNP MP added: “In a situation where we were dragged out of the single market and the customs union against our will – and we’re talking about a material change in circumstances, the phrase that was used in the manifesto in 2016 – then we must not lose sight of the option of having an independence referendum.”
At the weekend, Mr Blackford said the SNP had an “open ear” to calls for a referendum on the UK’s Brexit deal.
Ms Sturgeon has said she will reveal whether the Scottish Government will restart demands for a second independence referendum “once we get some clarity” on the detail of the UK’s exit deal, likely in the autumn.
Her cabinet reshuffle this week saw newly-elected SNP deputy leader Keith Brown leave the government to focus on preparing for a future independence campaign.
Supporters of the People’s Vote campaign believe momentum is growing for the public to have the final say on the deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels.
Labour MP Ian Murray said Mr Blackford’s comment “exposes the SNP for what they are”.
Mr Murray said: “They would rather a Tory Brexit so they can break their promise of a once in a generation independence vote than give the public a democratic vote on the Brexit deal. “They are as bad as the Tories at putting their narrow ideological party interests before the interests of the country.
“Supporters of a People’s Vote will see that they did nothing to stop this act of self harm for the country.”
In a speech at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank on Wednesday, Mr Blair warned that paralysis over the type of Brexit the UK should seek risked plunging Britain into the politics of the 1930s.
“Parliament must assert itself because neither government nor opposition can or will,” Mr Blair said. “Then the people must make the final decision because only they have the right to decide what version of Brexit they want or whether in the light of all they now know they prefer to remain.” He suggested the Brexit date should be delayed.
Also on Wednesday, the BMA passed a motion at its UK annual conference warning Britain’s departure from the EU poses a “major threat” to health and calling for a referendum on the terms of Brexit.
The Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Midwives have also recently supported calls for the public to have a final say on the Brexit deal.
Meanwhile, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May came under fresh pressure over Cabinet battles on Brexit that have increasingly moved into the open.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed the Prime Minister was having to “negotiate round the clock” with her own ministers to prevent the government from collapsing.
Today’s European Council summit in Brussels is expected to give little time to Brexit, with EU states focusing on migration and Russia, though leaders of the remaining 27 members will receive an update on negotiations in Mrs May’s absence tomorrow.
All eyes are now on a Cabinet awayday at Chequers at the end of next week, at which the Prime Minister aims to finally secure Cabinet backing for her vision of the UK’s future relations with the EU.
The plans, covering issues such as trade and security, are due to be set out in a long-awaited white paper next month, which is expected to outline in detail how the Prime Minister sees the UK engaging with the single market and customs union.
Fresh from having his job beefed up with a seat around the Cabinet table, the Scottish Government minister responsible for the constitution and Brexit, Michael Russell arrived in London for talks between the UK and devolved governments about the white paper, but said the meeting was a “deeply unsatisfactory experience”.
Mr Russell suggested the trip had been a waste of time, telling journalists: “I don’t know much more now than I did when I got out of my bed this morning.” He said: “I have to report that we have not seen a single word of the white paper today. If you have a ministerial forum to discuss the white paper, you would expect there would be a piece of paper.”