Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May clashed yesterday over the SNP’s plans for a second independence referendum when the Prime Minister hardened her stance against another vote.
Tensions between the two leaders spilled over when Mrs May took issue with Ms Sturgeon’s claim that it was “inconceivable” that the UK government would block Indyref2.
Number 10 reacted to Ms Sturgeon’s remark by saying it was “vital” that the 2014 No vote was respected.
The row erupted as Ms Sturgeon prepared to step up her attacks on the Conservative government by arguing that Scotland should not be represented on the European stage by eurosceptic Tories.
Today Ms Sturgeon will use her keynote speech at the SNP conference to declare that a new political fault line has opened up in Scotland with the SNP engaged in a “contest of ideas” with “hard right Tories”.
The SNP leader will also unveil a drive for better EU trade links as part of her plan to protect Scotland from the economic fall-out of Brexit. A Scottish business hub will be opened in Berlin, the number of trade and investment staff in Europe will be doubled and a new board of trade will be established.
In addition, prominent Scottish entrepreneurs will be appointed as EU trade envoys in an effort to stimulate economic activity.
Ms Sturgeon will argue that the “hard Brexit” vision – where the UK leaves the single market entirely – being pursued by eurosceptic Tories such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox will damage the Scottish economy.
The strain between the SNP and Conservative leaders was evident yesterday while Ms Sturgeon was preparing for today’s speech at the SECC in Glasgow.
Having announced yesterday that a draft referendum bill will be launched next week, the First Minister told the BBC that the legislation was required to protect Scotland against a Tory-inspired Brexit vote.
She said: “If as a result of that there is a view in the Scottish Parliament that the best way to protect our interests is to offer the choice of independence again, the idea that the same party that put us into that position would then deny us that choice I just find inconceivable.”
However, the power to hold a Scottish referendum remains within the gift of Westminster and at a briefing Mrs May’s official spokeswoman was quick to pour cold water on the prospect of a second vote.
The Downing Street spokeswoman said: “[Scottish people] wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. We think we should respect that decision and work constructively on how all four nations of the UK can come together and work out the best deal for the United Kingdom when we leave the European Union.
“It was a referendum that was once in a generation and it’s vital it should be respected.”
Brexit will be a dominant theme in Ms Sturgeon’s speech today, when she will declare that Scotland is “open for business” as she attempts to mitigate against the economic impact of EU withdrawal.
On the final day of the biggest ever SNP conference, Ms Sturgeon will also warn that the Conservatives’ approach to Brexit will damage Scotland’s economy.
“Make no mistake, the growth of our economy right now is threatened not just by the prospect of losing our place in the single market – disastrous though that would be,” she will say.
“It is also the deeply damaging – and utterly shameful – message that the Tories’ rhetoric about foreign workers is sending and the uncertainty that message brings to our public services and Scottish employers.
“More than ever, we need to tell our European friends that Scotland is open for business.”
But last night the Scottish Conservatives accused the SNP of being anti-business, arguing that proposals for a second independence referendum were harming the economy.
The SNP leader will describe her proposals as a “four-point plan” to boost trade and exports.
She will pledge that the Scottish Government would draw on the best business expertise to set up its Board of Trade.
The Berlin-based “Scottish Innovation and Investment Hub” would establish permanent trade representation in Germany for the first time.
The number of Scottish Development International staff operating in Europe will be doubled from 20 to 40, while the new trade envoy scheme will use “prominent and successful Scots” to boost exports.
“Let me be crystal clear about this – Scotland cannot trust the likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to represent us,” Ms Sturgeon will say.
“They are retreating to the fringes of Europe; we intend to stay at its very heart where Scotland belongs.”
Ms Sturgeon will also claim the vote for EU withdrawal means that Scotland now finds itself in a new political era.
On the final day of the conference in Glasgow’s SECC, she will also attempt to draw fresh battle lines with the Conservatives. Ms Sturgeon will tell the delegates: “Make no mistake: today, we face a choice of two futures. After last week in Birmingham, there can be no doubt – the choice we face has never been so stark.
“The primary contest of ideas in our country is now between the SNP and the hard right Tories.”
But last night the Scottish Conservatives attacked Ms Sturgeon’s business credentials arguing that another independence referendum would damage the economy.
Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “The SNP has made us the highest taxed part of the UK and embarked on a number of anti-business measures.
“Now it wants to rip us out of a union which is four times more valuable than the EU.”