Boris Johnson is heading for a constitutional clash with Nicola Sturgeon which could end in the Supreme Court after the Scottish first minister said the results of the elections provided a mandate for a second independence referendum.
Despite falling just short of an overall majority at Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon made clear she would press ahead with an IndyRef2 vote, warning that if the prime minister seeks to block it he would be “picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people”.
Mr Johnson - who branded a border poll “irresponsible and reckless” - offered an olive branch, inviting the first minister and her counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland to a summit to discuss how they can “work together” on the UK’s recovery from the pandemic.
In a letter to Ms Sturgeon, the PM stressed the UK government’s role in providing Covid support for Scottish businesses and procuring vaccines for NHS Scotland to administer, hailing the jabs rollout as “Team UK in action”.
“While the UK’s broad shoulders have supported jobs and businesses the length of the country, we know that economic recovery will be a serious shared responsibility,” he wrote. “Overcoming them will require us to show the same spirit of unity and cooperation that marked our fight against the pandemic.”
With all results declared north of the border, the SNP had increased its representation at Holyrood by a single MSP to 64, one less than the 65 needed for an overall majority.
And with eight MSPs from the Scottish Greens also committed in their manifesto to a referendum, Ms Sturgeon said the results clearly demonstrated that a fresh vote is “the will of the country”.
Conservatives took second place with 31, with Labour on 22 and Liberal Democrats on four, giving a tally of just 57 pro-Union MSPs against 72 in favour of separation from the UK.
“Given that outcome, there is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future,” said Ms Sturgeon.
If the request is rejected, she said, “it will demonstrate conclusively that the UK is not a partnership of equals and that – astonishingly – Westminster no longer sees the UK as a voluntary union of nations”.
She added: “That in itself would be a very powerful argument for independence.”
And she warned: “So for any Westminster politician who tries to stand in the way of that I would say two things. Firstly, you are not picking a fight with the SNP, you are picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people and secondly you will not succeed.
“The only people who can decide the future of Scotland are the Scottish people and no Westminster politician can or should stand in the way of that.”
A Scottish Green source said there were currently “no plans” for coalition talks with the SNP.
With recent polling suggesting that an IndyRef2 could produce the same No vote on independence as the earlier 2014 ballot, it is unclear how soon Ms Sturgeon will seek to call a referendum.
She has said it must wait until the Covid crisis is over, and both the SNP and Green manifestos commit the parties only to a vote within the five-year term of the Scottish parliament, which runs to 2026.
Under Article 30 of the Scotland Act, the first minister must seek authorisation from the UK prime minister for a referendum, something which Mr Johnson is likely to withhold.
But she has pledged to “proceed with the legislation that is necessary”, warning that if it is passed by the Scottish parliament, the PM would need to go to the Supreme Court to stop it.
Cabinet minister George Eustice branded a referendum “a complete distraction”.
“It would be irresponsible to have another divisive referendum and another bout of constitutional debate at a time when we are charting our way out of this pandemic and when we’ve got to really focus on economic recovery,” Mr Eustice told Times Radio.
“We think it’s completely the wrong thing to be doing. We had a referendum just a little over five years ago and that settled the issue.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, who was returned to Holyrood on the Highlands and Islands regional list, has said he will not “shy away” from fighting plans for an independence referendum. SNP hopes of an overall majority were dashed by the Conservatives holding on to the key marginal seat of Aberdeenshire West, with a nine-point increase in the Tory vote apparently reflecting tactical voting by pro-Union voters, who deserted Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Former first minister Alex Salmond missed out in his bid to return to the Scottish parliament as his newly-minted Alba Party failed to win a single seat.
Mr Salmond cast doubt on Ms Sturgeon’s commitment to a referendum, saying the first minister “lost her nerve” on Scottish independence in 2017.
“Nicola will prevaricate, Nicola lost her nerve on independence back in 2017 and has never recovered it,” Mr Salmond said. “It’s as simple as that.”
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