Theresa May has said leaving the EU without a deal would have “undoubted consequences” for the future of the UK, amid deepening concerns within her own party over how a no-deal Brexit could boost support for Scottish independence.
May warned Scottish Conservative supporters in Stirling that “a lot of people have taken the union for granted over the years”. She continued: “It’s not a case of either you can deliver Brexit or you can ensure that you maintain the union. You need to do both.”
While insisting she would not offer any advice to her successor on resolving the seemingly intractable problem of the Irish backstop, she emphasised: “There can and must be no false choice between honouring the solemn commitments of the [Good Friday] agreement and delivering on the decision of the British people in the EU referendum.”
May, whose relationship with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been increasingly strained, also hit out at the Scottish government, saying: “Over the last three years I have learned that while other parties can be relied on to work with the UK government in good faith to make devolution a success, an SNP Scottish government will only ever seek to further the agenda of separation.”
Sturgeon had shown her “true colours” by commenting on her speech before it had taken place, May said.
Earlier on Thursday, the SNP leader told STV news that May’s conduct as prime minister had led directly to an increase in support for independence.
Sturgeon said: “She’s conducted herself as prime minister in a high-handed arrogant way that is completely dismissive of Scotland. As people have experienced that over the past three years, many people, including some who voted no to independence in 2014, have reconsidered that view and that’s why we see support for independence rising.”
May said she was confident her successor would make the union a priority, adding: “One of the lessons of the independence referendum in 2014 was that those of us who believe in our United Kingdom need to do much more to make and demonstrate the emotional case for it – and to strengthen the ties that bind it together.”
She also insisted that the election of 13 Scottish Conservative MPs in the last general election “was a very clear message that the people of Scotland gave that they want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom”.
Referring to the breakdown of power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, as well as the electoral successes of nationalists in Wales and Scotland, May quoted the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who warned recently that the union was “more imperilled now than it has ever been”.
David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister and Theresa May’s de facto deputy, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One earlier on Thursday that the union was under threat, not only from Scottish nationalism or pressure for Irish unification, but from English “indifference”. He said a no-deal Brexit would make the breakup of the UK more likely.
Senior Scottish Conservative critics of Boris Johnson have privately expressed their despair at his likely succession to the Tory leadership, fearing it could be a “catastrophe” for the UK and immediately boost support for a second independence referendum if he pressed ahead with a no-deal Brexit.
A recent Panelbase poll in the Sunday Times Scotland found support for independence would jump to 53% if Johnson became prime minister. It found he had a popularity rating among Scottish voters of -37, a worse rating than Nigel Farage.
May also used the event, at a technology startup hub near Stirling castle, to unveil plans for a review of the role of Whitehall departments in the devolved nations, chaired by the former Scotland Office minister Andrew Dunlop, adding she was “delighted” both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt were supportive of the review.
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