The SNP may have to resort to a referendum without a “bullet-proof legal basis” if Theresa May refuses to allow a fresh vote on independence, a prominent MP has said.
Callum McCaig’s intervention came as Nicola Sturgeon prepared to tell SNP conference “we are not powerless” when it comes to holding a second vote.
During a TV interview on Friday, the First Minister 10 times refused to rule out holding a consultative ballot, telling STV News she would “consider what options I have” if Downing Street holds firm on its refusal to discuss a referendum.
Both the SNP leader and her aides insisted they will continue to pursue the legal route, however, rather than go down the route of a wildcat vote.
MSPs are expected to approve a request for a section 30 order from the UK Government, required to hold a referendum under the laws followed in 2014, and it is expected that the demand will be made by the end of next week.
Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out a vote on independence before Brexit has been finalised. Downing Street dismissed the suggestion that the SNP could hold a legal referendum without the PM’s approval between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, the timetable set out by Ms Sturgeon.
But during his speech to delegates in Aberdeen SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson insisted there was “no doubt” that a second referendum would take place.
And, asked by The Courier if there was a prospect of consultative referendum rather than a legislative binding one, Mr McCaig said: “It is clear that the government’s preference is for an agreement to be reached between Holyrood and Westminster – a bullet-proof legal basis for a referendum.
“But we are in entirely uncharted territory here. If the UK Government rejects a request from the Scottish Parliament on the basis of a manifesto commitment that was endorsed by record numbers of people only a year ago, then we are into very uncertain territory.
“Could that happen? I hope it doesn’t come to that. I think that at this stage nothing can be entirely ruled out.”
In her keynote speech to supporters at the party’s gathering in the north east, Ms Sturgeon will offer an olive branch to the Prime Minister on the timing of a second referendum.
But she will say that a refusal to accept the result of the Scottish Parliament’s vote on Wednesday would “shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals”.
Ms Sturgeon will say: “The future of the UK looks very different today than it did two years ago. We know change is coming. The EU referendum has made sure of that. The only question is what kind of change.
“And on that we are not powerless. We can still decide which path we take.
“Whatever our different opinions on independence, we can all unite around this simple principle: Scotland’s future must be Scotland’s choice.”
At a conference fringe event, Mike Russell, the SNP’s Brexit Minister, ruled out declaring independence, but he left open the possibility of pursuing a referendum without Westminster approval.
“A formal request for a (section) 30 order is the right thing to do,” he said.
“If then it won’t even be discussed and the envelope is returned unopened then we are in a different position, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Ian Murray, Labour’s Westminster spokesman, said: “The SNP must immediately withdraw the threat to impose an illegitimate and divisive referendum.”
Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw added: “It appears Nicola Sturgeon’s half-baked SNP’s referendum plans are descending into chaos.”
Meanwhile, Mrs May accused the SNP of being “divisive and obsessive” nationalists at the Conservative spring forum in Cardiff.
She said: “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. But it would be bad for Scotland, bad for the United Kingdom, and bad for us all.”