In a combative speech at the Scottish Tory party conference in Glasgow, the Prime Minister said she couldn’t allow the devolved assemblies to undermine what was best for the country.
And the Tory leader effectively told delegates sitting in the SECC in Glasgow, that she was ready for the fight of the seemingly inevitable second independence referendum, saying she was “determined to ensure that as we leave the EU, we do so as one United Kingdom.”
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There would be no shirking, she said, of her “responsibility to preserve the integrity and future viability of the United Kingdom.”
May used the speech to make her case for the union in a post-Brexit world, and, in a sentence that will have set alarms bells ringing in the Scottish Government, claimed it might be time to look again at the devolution settlement. “The UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998 without any thought of a potential Brexit,” the Prime Minister told the party faithful.
It was time, she continued, to “build a new ‘collective responsibility’ across the United Kingdom, which unites all layers of government, to work positively together to improve the lives of everyone in our country”.
The UK government, she said, had a “responsibility on behalf of the whole UK that transcends party politics and encompasses all aspects of our national life.
“While fully respecting, and indeed strengthening, the devolution settlements and the devolved administrations across the UK, we must unashamedly assert this fundamental responsibility on our part.”
One of the big promises of the Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum, was that any powers currently held by the European Union covering devolved areas, would automatically come to the Scottish Parliament.
Back in April, Tom Harris, who led the Scottish branch of the Vote Leave campaign, said: “Major new powers - particularly in fishing and agriculture - would automatically be devolved to Holyrood, not Westminster, in the event of the UK voting to leave the EU.
“Any repatriated power that isn’t already explicitly denoted as “reserved” in the Scotland Act 1998 is assumed to be the remit of the Scottish Parliament.”
The Tory leader said that wouldn’t be the case. While she wouldn’t remove powers from Holyrood, her government needed to “ensure that the United Kingdom can operate as effectively as possible in the future.”
“As we bring powers and control back to the United Kingdom, we must ensure that right powers sit at the right level to ensure our United Kingdom can operate effectively and in the interests of all of its citizens, including people in Scotland.”
This would mean a need to “avoid any unintended consequences for the coherence and integrity of a devolved United Kingdom as a result of our leaving the EU.”
SNP HQ will likely regard the refusal to guarantee more powers and the hardening of the language from the Tories as fighting talk.
The party’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson said May was a guilty of hypocrisy for accusing the SNP of being obsessed with constitutional affairs: “This was an ironic, hypocritical and surreal speech from Theresa May, who before the EU referendum supported a campaign warning that leaving Europe would be a disaster, but is now determined to pull us over the cliff edge of an economically catastrophic hard Brexit,” he said.
“Theresa May is guilty of mind-boggling hypocrisy – it is her government’s constitutional obsession with a hard Brexit which is directly threatening Scottish jobs and livelihoods.
“In those circumstances, we have a duty to stand up for Scotland, and to have a plan in place to protect our vital national interests.”
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond branded the Prime Minister’s speech a “power grab”.
He told BBC News: “She’s actually proposing that if Brexit goes ahead the powers that should come back to Scotland on fishing, farming and a range other issues - she’s going to retain them at Westminster, because she likes the look of the Scottish economic zone.
“That’s a fundamental attack on the very principle and foundation in statute of the Scottish Parliament of 1999, which said specifically that anything that wasn’t reserved to Westminster should be run in Scotland. This is Prime Minister who is attacking the very foundations of the Scottish Parliament, and she’ll do it to her cost.”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said the Prime Minister had, once again, undermined the Union: “Theresa May has created the deep divisions in our society that the SNP thrives upon.“She may claim the Union is ‘precious’ to her, but the Prime Minister is the person responsible for putting the Union at risk once again.” Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “The Conservatives and SNP are the terrible twins with each behaving as badly as the other. “Both sow the politics of division.” each use the other to make their arguments, none have a real focus on the needs of our security, economy and environment.”