May accuses Sturgeon of using Brexit as a 'pretext' for independence but the SNP leader hits back to claim the PM is 'at odds with democracy'
- Sturgeon caused a storm by calling for new referendum as early as Autumn 2018
- Insisted Scots had to be given a choice about future with UK leaving the EU
- But Theresa May has drawn battle lines saying there can't be a vote before Brexit
- First Minister responds be claiming it would be 'undemocratic' to block vote
- Accuses Mrs May of 'running scared' of the electorate by refusing to cooperate
Theresa May has accused Nicola Sturgeon of using Brexit as a 'pretext to engineer a second independence referendum'.
Speaking at the Tory Spring Forum, Mrs May said Britain had to pull together as one nation to make a success of leaving the European Union in a passionate rebuke to the SNP leader.
But the SNP leader shot straight back this afternoon with a claim the 'muddled' Prime Minister is at 'odds with democracy'.
At her own party conference, Ms Sturgeon slammed the PM's position as 'unsustainable'.
The latest angry exchanges come at the end of a week dominated by a furious fight over the future of Britain.
Mrs May has gambled on standing up to the Scottish First Minister and yesterday firmly rejected her demand for a new referendum as soon as next autumn.
The SNP responding by claiming Mrs May was 'running scared' of a new referendum.
Speaking in Aberdeen, Ms Sturgeon said: 'The Prime Minister's position just now - and it's a position I don't think is sustainable - is that she's not even prepared to have the discussion.
'And that is putting her at odds not just with me or the independence case.
'It's putting her at odds with the democratically expressed will of the Scottish Parliament - and that should not be a comfortable place for her to be. I pretty certain it's not a sustainable place for her to be.'
'It is now clear that using Brexit as the pretext to engineer a second independence referendum has been the SNP's sole objective ever since last June.'
The Prime Minister said she was determined to get a Brexit deal that worked in the interests of the country as a whole.
She said the coming negotiations were 'vital for everyone in the United Kingdom'.
Mrs May declared: 'We can only get that deal if we are united, as one United Kingdom, all pulling together to get the best outcome.
'That is what we have always done when faced with challenges.
'We have pulled together as one and succeeded together. We are four nations, but at heart we are one people.
'As the Prime Minister of this United Kingdom, I will always ensure the voices and interests of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are represented as we negotiate to leave the EU.
'And I will always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.'
Mrs May has made clear she plans to hold off Nicola Sturgeon's plans of a second independence referendum for as long as six years.
The Prime Minister has insisted the Scottish people have to know what Brexit will look like before another vote can even be contemplated.
Furious Nicola Sturgeon claimed the rebuke was 'undemocratic'. But the Prime Minister has said she would not begin talks on a referendum until the UK has had time to settle after Brexit, which would be around two years.
To complete the formalities needed to organise another referendum could take another 18 months, meaning another Scottish vote on independence could be pushed back as far as 2023.
Mrs May's rebuke comes after Ms Sturgeon dramatically hardened her threats about a referendum on Monday, insisting Scotland must be given a choice about its future.
She called for a ballot to be held between Autumn next year and the following spring. But that would be before the two year Brexit process is complete - a prospect that is completely unacceptable to Downing Street.
Ms Sturgeon has accused Mrs May of 'untenable' behaviour and 'running scared' during a bitter war of words between the two leaders.
The First Minster accused Mrs May of 'untenable' behaviour and 'running scared' during a bitter war of words between the two leaders .
The Westminster government has the power to prevent a binding poll being held.
But rather than blocking it outright - which ministers fear would just fuel nationalist sentiment - Mrs May is deploying more subtle tactics to kick it into the long grass.
As she prepares to embark on potentially fraught talks with Brussels, Mrs May told the First Minister that they should be 'working together, not pulling apart'.
'We should be working together, not pulling apart. Now is not the time,' she said.
Nicola Sturgeon questioned over plans to hold a second referendum
Speaking at First Minister's questions in Holyrood, she said: 'If on Wednesday next week this Parliament votes for an independence referendum to give the people of Scotland a choice over the future of their future - will the Conservatives block the will of this Parliament? Or are the Conservatives running scared?'
In an interview later with BBC Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said: 'This is like winding the clock back to the bad old days of Margaret Thatcher.
'It is an argument for independence really in a nutshell, that Westminster thinks it has got the democratically elected mandate of the Scottish Government and the majority in the Scottish Parliament.
'History may look back on today and see it as the day the fate of the union was sealed.'
The First Minister has already suffered a series of setbacks in her campaign to tear up the UK.
An array of surveys have shown there is still a solid majority in Scotland in favour of remaining in the union - and people do not want a ballot staged before Brexit happens.
Meanwhile, Spain has flatly dismissed the prospect of Scotland being allowed to keep EU membership if it breaks away.
A confident Prime Minister, boosted today by news that the historic Brexit Bill has gained Royal Assent and became law, swiped at Ms Sturgeon for manufacturing a row about Brexit to further her independence ambitions.
She said 'all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the EU about our future relationship'.
'And more than that, I think it wouldn't be fair to the people of Scotland because they're being asked to make a crucial decision without all the necessary information - without knowing what the future partnership would be, or what the alternative of an independent Scotland would look like.'
She added: 'This union we have is very precious. We've been joined together for over 300 years. We've had a great history together - I believe we have a great future together.
'Together, we should put our energies into making sure we get the right deal for Scotland and for the whole of the UK.'
In a coordinated attack on the SNP position, Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson held a news conference in Edinburgh later.
Mr Mundell delivered the bluntest rejection yet of Ms Sturgeon's demands, making clear that even if the Scottish Parliament approves a call for a referendum, the Westminster government will refuse to pass the Section 30 order needed to stage a binding vote.
'This argument isn't about mandates, it's about holding a referendum on established criteria which were set on in the Edinburgh Agreement,' he said.
'That established that a referendum must be legal, fair and decisive.
'The proposal brought forward is not fair, people will not be able to make an informed choice.
'Neither is there public or political support for such a referendum.
'Therefore we will not be entering into discussions or negotiations about a section 30 agreement and any request at this time will be declined.'
She said: 'If the Prime Minister refuses to engage on the terms of a referendum before Brexit takes place then she is effectively trying to block the people of Scotland having a choice over their future. That would be a democratic outrage.
'It is for the Scottish Parliament – not Downing Street – to determine the timing of a referendum, and the decision of the Scottish Parliament must be respected.
'It would be outrageous for the Scottish Parliament to be frozen out of the process.'
Posting on Twitter, Ms Sturgeon insisted she only wanted a referendum when the terms of Brexit are clear and 'before it is too late to choose an alternative path'.
'If the Tories refuse to do so, they would effectively be blocking Scotland's right to choose when the Brexit terms (are) clear.
'This would be undemocratic given @scotgov (the Scottish Government's) clear mandate and also proof positive that the Tories fear the verdict of the Scottish people.'
A YouGov poll for The Times put the majority against independence even higher at 57-43.
ComRes research for the Sun found just 25 per cent of Scots thought the country should be fully independent, against 58 per cent who thought it should not and 17 per cent who were not sure.
Meanwhile, the huge annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey included evidence of a sharp rise in Euroscepticism.
Two thirds of the public north of the border would want Brussels to have reduced powers or for the UK to leave the EU completely, according to the research.
The last referendum in 2014 - which the SNP said would settle the issue for a 'generation' - delivered a 55 per cent majority for staying the UK, equivalent to two million votes.
SNP sources have been trying to play down reports that Ms Sturgeon will downscale her ambitions to Scotland joining the European Free Trade Association if it becomes independent.
But they have to comply with rules imposed by Brussels and have no real input into legislation which is drawn up in the Belgian capital.
Earlier today, history was made after theQueen gave Royal Assent to the Brexit Bill - clearing the way for Mrs May to trigger the divorce from Brussels.
Speaker John Bercow told the Commons that the monarch has formally signed off the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
But although the PM now has the powers to invoke the two-year Article 50 process for leaving the Brussels club, she has indicated she will wait until the end of the month to do so.