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Sturgeon’s spanner in the works

On Monday morning, the only conversation around Westminster was whether this would be the week Theresa May finally pressed the Brexit button and started the process of leaving the EU.

The Prime Minister had overcome the momentary roadblock presented by the House of Lords which had made two amendments to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, including over the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.

On Monday night, peers backed down after their amendments were overturned by MPs. Theresa May was now free to trigger Article 50.

But hours earlier, the story had taken another twist as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her desire to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence in late 2018 or early 2019, just as the UK’s divorce negotiations will be, in theory, wrapping up.

The Government announced Article 50 would not be triggered until the end of March. Number 10 insisted this was always the plan; others are convinced Nicola Sturgeon threw a spanner in the works.

In truth, this clash had been coming ever since Theresa May committed to removing the UK from the single market – a red line set by the Scottish Government. Many unionists believe Brexit is the excuse rather than the cause of Sturgeon’s bid for a second referendum, and this was a key theme when the Prime Minister went before the Commons on Tuesday.

Although May was notionally there to report on last weekend’s European Council summit, the session was dominated by the future of the Union.

SNP MP after SNP MP stood up to ask the Prime Minister why she had not given the devolved administrations a greater role in developing the UK’s negotiating position, while Conservative MPs accused the SNP of playing politics with the Union.

The Prime Minister repeatedly claimed she was taking a UK-wide approach to negotiations and is optimistic of getting a good deal, but this did not placate her opponents.

Despite support from her backbenchers, the prospect of a second independence referendum will make Theresa May uneasy. In her first speech as Prime Minister outside Downing Street, she spoke earnestly of her belief in the Union and its benefits to all of its citizens, even reminding the nation of her party’s full name: ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party’.

Yet many in Westminster feel, on her watch, Scottish independence is closer than ever.

Nicola Sturgeon’s bombshell will have further consequences in the coming months and years. This issue is likely to bubble under the surface at every turn as the Prime Minister deals with her European counterparts.

EU negotiators will be all too aware of divisions in the UK and the Prime Minister’s determination to keep Scotland in the Union.

And at the same time Northern Ireland, and the need for borderless access between the North and the South of the island as part of the Good Friday Agreement, is an issue that remains unresolved.

In Wales, the issue is less fraught, but their devolved administration will want a piece of the action too.

Theresa May does not want to be the Prime Minister that oversees the break-up of the Union. But over the last week that has become a real possibility. The stakes are higher than ever.

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