Andrea Leadsom has become the first Conservative leadership hopeful to leave open the possibility of agreeing to a second Scottish independence referendum.
The former Leader of the House of Commons said she would “never say never” to the prospect of new independence vote, but stressed that it would not be in the interests of either Scotland or the UK.
But Leadsom added it would be “disrespectful” to Holyrood for her to rule out a referendum completely if she becomes the next Prime Minister.
She is among ten contenders bidding to replace Theresa May as Tory leader and enter 10 Downing Street.
Speaking at a lunch event to Westminster journalists, Leadsom said: “All of these things would be up for negotiation. I do believe in sovereignty.
“I do not think that Scotland should have another independence referendum right now.
“I don’t think most people in Scotland would want that to happen. But I would never say never.”
She continued: “The reason I say ‘never say never’ is because I do not think that there should be another independence referendum in Scotland, I do not think it’s in their interest, but on the other hand I am a big believer in devolution.
“So, what I just want to say is I am not going to stand here and utterly rule it out because I think that that is disrespectful.
“But I would very strongly fight against a second referendum, which I don’t think is in the interest of Scotland and it’s definitely not in the interests of the UK.”
Responding to Leadsom’s comments, Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray said: “This shows that the Tories can’t be trusted to protect Scotland’s place in the Union.
“The majority of people in Scotland don’t want a divisive second independence referendum and have rejected both the nationalism of the SNP and the Tories.
“With Boris Johnson threatening to make Scots workers pay towards tax cuts for the wealthiest people in England, this disgusting Tory leadership contest is putting the Union at risk.”
He added: “These Tories must stop putting their party before the country in their desperate scramble for the keys to No 10.
“Ruth Davidson can’t remain silent on this – she must explain how she is going to stand up for the Union amidst these Tory attempts to create further division.”
Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to try to hold a second independence vote in the next two years, but Theresa May has repeatedly said she will not grant a Section 30 request to formally give Holyrood the powers to do so.
The contenders jostling to replace May have all, bar Leadsom, said they would not support a fresh plebiscite on independence in Scotland.
Home secretary Sajid Javid, who has been backed by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, was mocked online after saying he would “not allow” a second vote.
Bookies’ favourite Boris Johnson said last month “the United Kingdom truly is better together and we must never put that at risk”.
Earlier on Tuesday, the former London mayor received the endorsement of prominent Scots Brexiteer MP Ross Thomson, who is backing Johnson to “unite” the country.