Granting a second independence referendum in Scotland would be “irresponsible”, according to the Environment Secretary, as counting gets under way again to determine whether the SNP has won a majority in Holyrood.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to plough ahead with plans for a follow-up border poll as her party’s chances of taking more than 65 seats in the Scottish Parliament remained in the balance as counting resumed on Saturday.
With the SNP leader’s strategy putting her on a collision course with the Prime Minister, who has insisted he would not support an “irresponsible” referendum, senior minister George Eustice said it was the wrong time to be considering another plebiscite.
“We think this is a complete distraction,” Mr Eustice told Times Radio.
“It would be irresponsible to have another divisive referendum and another bout of constitutional debate at a time when we are charting our way out of this pandemic and when we’ve got to really focus on economic recovery.
“We think it’s completely the wrong thing to be doing.
“We had a referendum just a little over five years ago and that settled the issue.”
His comments come after Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph another referendum would be “irresponsible and reckless” in the “current context” as Britain emerges from the coronavirus crisis.
The Environment Secretary looked to shift the conversation away from there being a clash in the courts between No 10 and the SNP over the issue.
Asked whether the Government would fight any bid for a second Scottish referendum in the courts, he told BBC Breakfast: “Look, I’m not a lawyer – lawyers will look at these things and I think it is getting ahead of ourselves.
“There is a question at the moment over whether the SNP will get a majority or not – we’ll have to wait and see until the results come through.”
Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said he was “very confident” Holyrood would emerge from the Super Thursday elections with a pro-independence majority, even if the SNP falls short of winning more than 65 seats.
After 48 of the 73 constituency results in Scotland were declared on Friday, the SNP had 39 seats, Liberal Democrats four, Conservatives three and Labour two.
The SNP picked up key seats in Edinburgh Central, Ayr and East Lothian.
But under Holyrood’s proportional representation system, those successes could see it lose out on the regional list which make up the remaining 56 seats.
Some constituencies are still to be counted on Saturday, when the crucial regional list results will also be declared.
Mr Swinney told the BBC: “I think what matters on the question you asked me about, a mandate for a referendum is what is the position of those who are elected to the Parliament and will there be an overall majority of members elected committed to the hosting of an independence referendum, and I’m very confident that will be the case.”