A meeting of ministers - but not minds (yet)

Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May met at a hotel in Glasgow on Monday afternoon

A meeting of ministers. But not yet a meeting of minds. Theresa May has been in Scotland for a series of engagements - including talks with the first minister.

Nicola Sturgeon characterised the discussions as "cordial" but also voiced her frustration that there was no sign of concessions in the direction of a distinct Brexit deal for Scotland.

Should we be surprised? Not in the slightest. The prime and first ministers do not see eye to eye. Not out of badness but because they disagree fundamentally and deeply about the future of Scotland.

Such differences cannot be elided by a relatively short chat in a Glasgow hotel.

There was symbolism surrounding all of the prime minister's visit. Theresa May was out to demonstrate that Scotland was a key part of her thinking ahead of the triggering of Article 50 on Wednesday, beginning the process of removing Britain from the EU.

That symbolism extended to the various events which formed elements of the day. For example, she held discussions with Police Scotland to mark their planned involvement in a counter-terrorism training exercise.

Political attachments

This was, of course, a substantive announcement in its own right. But it was also about underlining the links between Scotland and anti-terrorism initiatives elsewhere in the UK.

Then she went to the Department for International Development in East Kilbride. The PM's speech praised their efforts in countering global poverty. But there were political messages attached, claims that the UK counts in such endeavours and that the UK will retain an outward-looking approach, post Brexit.

So did the prime minister come bearing gifts? Not at this stage, no. Indeed, in an interview with me, she repeatedly sidestepped questions as to whether she might consider an independence referendum at some stage, outwith the First Minister's timetable.

It would be wrong, she argued, to countenance such discussions at this point. It would be an unwarranted distraction and unfair to Scotland, in that people would be voting without knowing the full details of the Brexit package.

The PM argued, once again, that she was determined to secure a Brexit deal which would be advantageous for the entire UK, including Scotland.

Image copyright AFP

Nicola Sturgeon's view? She found the talks marginally more substantive than had been the case in the past. But she told me she remained "frustrated" at the lack of any progress towards her demands.

Nothing, she said, on a distinctive deal for Scotland. Nothing new on returning EU powers to Holyrood as well as Westminster. To emphasise, UK ministers have repeatedly insisted that there will be more powers for Edinburgh.

But Ms Sturgeon attached importance to one element. She said that the prime minister had indicated her intent to secure a Brexit deal - including the future of trading links with the remaining EU - within the two year timescale set out in Article 50.

The first minister interpreted that as meaning that it would be feasible to hold a referendum within her preferred time scale; that is from Autumn 2018 to Spring 2019.

Two obvious obstacles. Firstly, that would require pre-discussion and negotiation to begin now or very shortly. The prime minister does not want that. She wants nothing to distract from the Brexit process.

Secondly, even the timetable noted by the first minister after her talks might require further flexibility. Remember that UK Ministers said they wanted the Brexit outcome to "settle down" before even contemplating indyref2. That, depending on interpretation, could stretch beyond the two year timescale.

More to come, this week, much more.

PS: I cannot let the day go by without congratulating the mighty Dundee United on their magnificent triumph in the Challenge Cup. Great victory. Outstanding goals. Heroes all.

To any cynics out there - and, you know, there are a few - I would say that this wonderful win completes our line-up of domestic silverware. The Forfarshire Cup. The City of Discovery Cup. And, in addition, the small matter of the League, the Scottish Cup (twice) and the League Cup (twice).

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