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16 March 2017

In denying Nicola Sturgeon a referendum, Theresa May is gambling on a good Brexit deal

Theresa May's decision may age as badly as her decision not to go for an early election. 

By Stephen Bush

So, there won’t be another referendum on Scottish independence after all – at least, not yet. Theresa May has rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s proposed timetable for a referendum before the Brexit negotiations are complete. Is it the right call?

Well, as far as Scottish opinion is concerned, we don’t have as much data as I’d like, but all of it suggests that the answer to that question is “No”.

We’ve had three polls since Sturgeon’s announcement, two showing a spike in support for independence, one for the status quo, but both, crucially, within the margin of error of the 55 to 45 per cent result from the last referendum.

We also have a wealth of polling showing that Scottish voters, on the whole, don’t want another independence referendum, at least not yet. As you’d expect, a majority of people who voted No at the last referendum but also a sizable chunk of people who voted Yes have no appetite to rerun the contest just yet. But that polling also shows that people think that if the Scottish Parliament asks for a referendum, Westminster shouldn’t block it.

So it feels as if May has turned a negative for the SNP – revisiting a battle that people didn’t want to have – into a positive by blocking it.

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She has made another gamble, too. If the referendum is held before Britain’s deal with the EU27 is known, the contest will be between one hypothetical relationship between the European Union and Britain, and the fixed pre-conditions of Scottish membership of the EU or the EEA.  If it is held after, it will be on the actual deal that Britain has got.

If that deal is a good one, that advantages May. But if Britain does get a bad deal or worse still leaves without one, May’s decision not to fight a second referendum may age as badly as her decision not to get her own mandate while Labour was flat on its back last summer.