Theresa May visits Scotland to press case for 'special union'

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Theresa May is meeting Nicola Sturgeon to underline her support for the UK in her first official visit to Edinburgh as prime minister. The meeting comes as May’s government promises to include Scotland’s devolved administration in negotiations to withdraw Britain from the EU.

The two women posed briefly for photographers outside the first minister’s official residence, Bute House, before beginning their meeting, scheduled to last for about 45 minutes. This is only the third time that the pair have met, and their first formal one-to-one encounter.

Speaking before the meeting with Sturgeon, who has talked of the need for a second independence referendum after Scots voted heavily in favour of staying in the EU, May said: “I believe with all my heart in the United Kingdom – the precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“This visit to Scotland is my first as prime minister and I’m coming here to show my commitment to preserving this special union that has endured for centuries.”

In a message aimed at the Scottish people, the prime minister promised her government would “always be on your side”.

“Every decision we take, every policy we take forward, we will stand up for you and your family – not the rich, the mighty or the powerful. That’s because I believe in a union, not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens,” she said.

The visit highlights a sense of urgency within government over the issue of maintaining the UK after Scots voted 62% to 38% to remain within the EU.

Sturgeon reiterated on Thursday evening that she believed that, in order to protect Scotland’s interests after the vote to leave the EU, “the best or only option may be to consider whether we want to become an independent country”.

But May’s official spokeswoman insisted that the prime minister believed the issue of Scottish independence had now been settled.

Ahead of the meeting, she said: “It will be an opportunity to discuss how they are going to work together. An opportunity for the Prime Minister to underline to the First Minister that she does want to make sure the UK Government fully engages with the Scottish Government on discussions around leaving the European Union.

“And with regard to a second referendum, the Prime Minister’s view is that we have already had a referendum. It was legal, and fair, and the result was decisive.”

After meeting Sturgeon, May will attend a party event along with Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who was a strong supporter of May’s candidacy for leadership of the Westminster party.

May’s Scotland secretary, David Mundell, said it was possible for there to be a second independence referendum but it wasn’t desirable.

“Could there be another independence referendum? Clearly there could be,” he said. “But should there be another independence referendum?” He said the Scottish people were in “no mood” for another national vote.

The EU referendum was about whether the UK should remain in the EU, Mundell said, and the support for membership within Scotland was not a vote for the country to be “automatically dragged out of the UK”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was not surprising Sturgeon was pushing for a second independence referendum, arguing that it was the “raison d’être” for her Scottish National Party. But “she won’t have a referendum until she can win it”, he added.

Mundell said a new department focusing on Brexit, led by the new cabinet secretary, David Davis, would involve Scotland, with discussions between senior civil servants already under way. “What they’ve already been very clear [about] is they want a Team UK approach, and what people don’t want is this toxic and divisive issue of a second referendum.”

Mundell, the only Tory MP in Scotland, was one of the few people who remained in their cabinet positions on Thursday after May took an axe to David Cameron’s top team, sacking a string of senior figures, including Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan and John Whittingdale, following on from George Osborne.

May’s team included more ministers who went to state schools, with a slight increase in the number of women, but she came under criticism for culling the department dedicated to energy and climate change.

Big winners included Justine Greening, who will run a beefed-up Department for Education; Liz Truss, who takes over Gove’s role as justice secretary; and Amber Rudd, who was made home secretary a day earlier.

Andrea Leadsom, who paved the way for May’s premiership when she dropped out of the leadership race earlier this week, is the new secretary for environment, food and rural affairs. Leadsom made clear during the leadership campaign that she would like the ban on foxhunting to be repealed and once suggested the subsidies received by farmers from the EU should be phased out.

Priti Patel, the former employment minister, takes over as secretary of state for international development, despite a history of being sceptical about foreign aid. She has previously called for the department to be abolished.

The cabinet has a distinctly less privileged flavour, with Cameron’s party chairman and close friend Andrew Feldman being replaced by the former miner Patrick McLoughlin. Only about a fifth of May’s team were privately educated, compared with almost half under Cameron.

McLoughlin has been given the job of winning seats and gaining support in parts of the country that are not traditional Conservative strongholds – a clear signal that May hopes to exploit Labour’s disarray by reaching out to working-class voters.

May’s allies insisted she was not motivated by a personal animus against the “chumocracy” of close friends and allies that surrounded Cameron and Osborne, but had favoured colleagues she believed could deliver.

The prime minister announced the most radical change to the shape of Whitehall for years, with the Department for Energy and Climate Change being abolished and its responsibilities absorbed into a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The Green party said the shakeup amounted to May having “utterly abandoned environmental issues on her first day in office”. The party’s energy spokesman, Andrew Cooper, also criticised the appointment of Leadsom, saying she had voted against measures to tackle climate change.

“May appears to be sending a clear message that fighting climate change is simply not on her agenda,” he said.

The use of the term “industrial strategy” comes after May criticised Osborne, the former chancellor, over failures on that issue in government.

Sajid Javid, who was in charge of the business department, becomes communities secretary, while Greg Clark takes his old role.

Under Greening, the education department will take over responsibility for apprenticeships and higher education, currently overseen by the business department. Downing Street said this was so that children’s journey, from the early years to their first steps into the workplace, would be overseen by a single department.

Despite Truss and Greening’s advances, however, expectations that Britain’s second female prime minister would bring a decisive boost to the number of women in government were disappointed, with most roles still held by men.

There were rumours on Thursday that Jeremy Hunt would be sacked as health secretary, but he was later confirmed in his post, tweeting “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and that he was thrilled to be back “in the best job in government”.

One well-placed NHS official said: “We were told this morning [Thursday] that he was going. Everybody was hoping that he would move on and everyone was expecting that he would move on. But then we were stumped that he was being retained. People were genuinely surprised. Hunt staying was clearly not the plan.”

May’s office denied reports that Stephen Crabb was offered the health brief but turned it down. Crabb, the work and pensions secretary who dropped out of the leadership race after the first round of voting, said he would be leaving the government for “personal reasons”. A source said he had “healing to do” after it emerged the married MP had sent a series of salacious messages to a young woman.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio, said of the cabinet announcements: “We had warm words from the prime minister yesterday on the need for her government to stand up for more than just a privileged few, but Theresa May’s appointments are completely out of kilter with her words on the steps of Downing Street yesterday. It’s difficult to see this new-look cabinet as anything other than a sharp shift to the right by the Tories.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Anushka Asthana, Heather Stewart and Libby Brooks, for theguardian.com on Friday 15th July 2016 08.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010