Britain has moved a step closer to leaving the European Union after Parliament cleared the way for Theresa May to begin formal Brexit negotiations.
The landmark legislation, which allows the Prime Minister to trigger the start of the Article 50 withdrawal process, completed its passage through the House of Lords on Monday without amendment.
Brexit Secretary David Davis hailed the outcome, saying the UK was “on the threshold of the most important negotiation for our country in a generation”.
But the result was overshadowed by the bombshell announcement earlier in the day by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she intended to hold a second independence referendum just as those talks were coming to a head.
The move drew a furious response from Mrs May who accused the SNP of “playing politics with the future of our country” with a vote that would only create “more uncertainty and division”.
Her comments were seen as an indication that she will not allow the referendum to go ahead until after the Brexit process is complete – which is expected to be in the spring of 2019.
Setting out her proposal, Ms Sturgeon said that if Scotland was to have a “real choice” the vote should take place once the terms of the Brexit deal were known but “before it is too late to choose our own course”.
She will go to the Scottish Parliament next week to seek its authority to agree a “Section 30 order” – the procedure which allows it to legislate for an independence referendum – with the UK Government with a view to staging a vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson dismissed the idea that the Government at Westminster could seek to block a new referendum.
“I just cannot see how a democratically elected UK Government will say to a democratically elected Scottish Government which was elected on a mandate to hold a referendum …. one’s not going to allow a vote,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight.
Meanwhile Downing Street has indicated that the Prime Minister will not seek to invoke Article 50 until the end of the month, despite the EU (Notification Of Withdrawal) Bill completing its passage through Parliament.
EU leaders had been prepared for an announcement this week, with April 6 pencilled in as the date for a meeting of the other 27 to respond to the move – a gathering which will now be pushed back until later that month.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman played down suggestions she was delaying due to Ms Sturgeon’s announcement, saying Mrs May had always said she would trigger Article 50 by the end of March.
“I’ve said ‘end’ many times but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters strongly enough,” the spokesman said.
Waiting until the last week of March would not only avoid a clash with the Dutch general election on Wednesday, but also delay the start of negotiations until after a special summit of the remaining 27 in Rome on March 25 to celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary.
On Monday night, the Lords finally backed down in their battle with ministers over their attempts to change the legislation after the Commons overturned two amendments previously backed by peers.
MPs voted by 331 to 286 to reject one amendment requiring Parliament to be given a “meaningful” vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and by 335 to 287 to dismiss a second amendment guaranteeing the future status of EU nationals living in the UK.
Following the Commons votes, they were then rejected by margins of 274 to 118 and 274 to 135 in the Lords, ending peers’ resistance to the Government’s plans.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was “deeply disappointing” the Government had refused to give ground but that it was “only the start of the process”.
“Labour, at every stage, will challenge the Government’s plans for a bargain basement Brexit with Labour’s alternative of a Brexit that puts jobs, living standards and rights first,” he said.