With the UK’s exit from the European Union deadlocked, a protracted constitutional row between London and Edinburgh moved closer with both sides hardening their stance on Scottish independence.
Both First Ministers were invited to take part in a new UK Cabinet sub-committee formed at the start of the year to co-ordinate preparations for Brexit, including negotiated and no-deal scenarios. However, the meeting was overshadowed by the emphasis both the SNP and the Conservatives put on staking out their positions on Scottish independence, with Ms Sturgeon repeating a commitment to reveal details of her timetable for a fresh referendum within weeks.
The First Minister said Mrs May had dismissed calls from the SNP and other opposition parties for an extension to the Article 50 process to delay Brexit and allow time for a second referendum on EU membership.
After The Scotsman revealed Scottish Conservative MPs were against proposals to give Holyrood ministers a formal role in post-Brexit trade negotiations, the SNP leader claimed Scotland could no longer be “at the whim and diktat of a hardline, inflexible Tory Unionist cabal”.
Speaking in Downing Street following the meeting, Ms Sturgeon said: “It seems to me she [Mrs May] is putting all of her eggs in the basket of trying to win over the DUP and ERG, playing to the right wing, hardline Brexiteers, which is, unless something fundamental changes I can’t see right now, destined to fail.
“We’re … being asked to back a withdrawal agreement that goes against what Scotland voted for. That’s not what any self-respecting Scottish MP should vote for, and the SNP won’t be voting for it.”
The First Minister added: “You can’t stand in the way of people having the right to choose. The Prime Minister’s position has never been a sustainable one. The Scottish people are getting fed up of listening to Theresa May telling them what they can do.
“She is perfectly entitled to oppose [Scottish] independence but this idea you can stand in the right of people to choose is a nonsensical and unsustainable one.”
Earlier, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May twice said there was no appetite for a second referendum on Scotland’s place in the UK.
“The SNP sadly is out of touch with the people of Scotland and has not yet heard that message,” the Prime Minister said in response to Scottish Tory MP Stephen Kerr, who suggested that at her meeting with Ms Sturgeon, the Prime Minister should “firmly tell her no”.
Mrs May continued: “The last thing we want is a second independence referendum. The United Kingdom should be pulling together, and should not be being driven apart.”
The hardening of the tone on independence was echoed by SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who suggested a new referendum should be held before the post-Brexit transition phase is due to expire at the end of 2020.
In a post on social media, she said: “If there’s a Brexit deal, during the transition period Scotland will require to decide whether our social, political and economic future lies within a market of 500 million or 60 million and in a union of equal partners or unequal partners.
“If there’s no deal, Scotland will require to make the same decision albeit without the cushion of a transition period.
“Either way, if [there’s] no extension of Article 50 [and] no People’s Vote, these issues will require to be addressed very soon.”
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government came under pressure to publish the legal advice it has been given on holding a second independence referendum without permission via Section 30 of the Scotland Act.
The order is a technical measure that grants Holyrood temporary powers to hold a referendum that is legally binding, provided UK ministers are in agreement.
Lord Advocate James Wolffe declined to respond to Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles, instead passing the question on legal advice to the parliamentary business minister, Graeme Dey. Mr Dey said: “By long-standing convention, the content of any legal advice received by the government is of course, confidential.”
Mr Rumbles said it was a “poor response”. He added: “It would have been helpful if perhaps the Lord Advocate had given us the benefit of his advice.”
Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins echoed the calls from Mr Rumbles and asked: “Is it the Scottish Government’s view that this Parliament could lawfully pass legislation authorising an independence referendum without a Section 30 order or not – yes or no?”
Mr Dey responded: “Presiding Officer, I have to refer the member to my earlier answer.”
The Lib Dem MSP said: “I specifically asked for his advice to MSPs here in this Chamber. Under the Scotland Act, they are here for that purpose. And what I find particularly annoying is that the Lord Advocate is actually present and has taken the decision not to answer my question.”
Presiding Officer Christine Grahame responded: “As the member is aware, oral questions are addressed to the Scottish Government, as your one was, and it is for the Scottish Government to decide who attends to answer each question.”