Alistair Darling has said that Nicola Sturgeon could be writing her “political epitaph” if she makes good her threat of a second independence referendum in the wake of the Brexit vote.
The leader of the Better Together campaign, which won the last referendum by nearly 11 points, told the Telegraph the First Minister does not want a rerun “any quicker than I do” thanks to a series of major problems afflicting the independence case.
The former Labour Chancellor, who is now Lord Darling of Roulanish, said Ms Sturgeon has just seen David Cameron resign after losing a referendum he was supposed to win and she would not want to end her tenure in the same way.
Senior nationalists believe Scotland’s massive annual £15 billion deficit could be partly filled if it gets EU membership and can attract some of the financial services companies looking at leaving the City of London after the Brexit vote.
But Lord Darling, who sits on the board of directors of financial services giant Morgan Stanley, said there was no guarantee the jobs would come north of the Border and “I don’t think you can close the gap by wishful thinking.”
His intervention came as the First Minister and David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, today hold separate summits with the country’s business leaders to discuss the potential impact of leaving the EU and their priorities going forward.
In addition to the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, they have to consider the prospect of a second independence referendum after Ms Sturgeon said one is “highly likely”. She ordered her civil servants to draw up the necessary legislation after 62 per cent of Scots voted to Remain in the EU.
However, most opinion polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, when anger among Remain supporters was at its most intense, showed only a small majority for separation.
Lord Darling said the First Minister is a “very cautious” politician, arguing: “I don’t think Nicola Sturgeon wants a referendum any quicker than I do. She has just watched David Cameron walk into a referendum that everyone thought he would win and he didn’t…
“You can lose one referendum but lose two and she knows that would be her political epitaph and she does not want to end that way.”
He said the “problem with the currency is still there”, with a separate Scotland having to abandon the pound – which will become the currency of a non-EU nation – to join the euro as a condition of membership.
Secondly, he said that new member states have to sign up for “strict budget conditions” but Scotland last year ran up a £15 billion deficit that was proportionately twice the size of the UK’s. The current year’s figures are expected to be even worse as oil revenues have since completely collapsed.
In addition, the former Chancellor pointed out that accepting free movement of workers means “the whole question of border controls with England comes back into play.”
Lord Darling noted that the nature of the new trading relationship between the EU and the UK will not be known for a while, but it would much longer for a separate Scotland to become a member state.
“With the best will in the world, they (the EU) take years and they will be busy negotiating with the UK at the same time,” he said.
Mr Mundell will today stage a meeting with the Royal Society of Edinburgh with representatives from the retail, food and drink and financial services industries. Among the organisations attending are CBI Scotland, the Institute of Directors, BP, SSE and Lloyds Banking Group.
The Scottish Secretary will set out the Government’s plans for the creation of a specialist EU unit to tackle issues such as trade treaties.
Speaking ahead of the talks, he said: “Now is the time for us to work together, as Team UK, to face up to the new realities of our position and to achieve collectively the best possible outcome for everyone in the country.
“Clearly we must negotiate for the best possible access to an EU export market worth £11.6 billion to Scottish exports. But we must not lose sight of the market closer to home, worth four times that.”
Ms Sturgeon, who is threatening to leave the more important UK single market, will hold talks at her Bute House residence with the ‘Big Six’ business groups.
She said: “Clearly there is now uncertainty for business, so we need to protect Scotland from that as much as possible. Today’s meeting with leading business organisations is a vital step in that process, as Scotland’s business community has a great deal to play in this – by coming together today they can start to map out a united response, which will be crucial in protecting Scotland’s interests.”