A key ally of the Prime Minister refused to rule out the prospect that the UK Government could take the Scottish Government to court if Nicola Sturgeon tries to press ahead with a second independence referendum.
Cabinet office minister Michael Gove was asked to make clear if Westminster had explicitly ruled out going to the Supreme Court, should the First Minister bring forward legislation for a referendum without the consent of the Tories in the UK Government.
The Scottish First Minister and SNP leader has already told the Prime Minister that the Holyrood election – in which a majority of independence supporting MSPs were returned – means it is now a case of “when not if” there is another vote on the issue.
But Gove insisted the priority must be on the country’s coronavirus recovery, branding any talk of a second referendum as a “distraction” and a “diversion” from that.
His comments came after the SNP was elected for a record fourth term in power at Holyrood, on the basis of a manifesto which promised another vote on independence before the end of 2023.
And while Sturgeon’s party narrowly failed to get a majority, falling one short of this with a tally of 64 MSPs, the record eight Scottish Green MSPs that were voted in means there is a majority for independence within the new Parliament.
But speaking to journalists on Monday, Gove insisted: “Our focus is purely and principally on recovery at the moment.
“So of course there is a conversation about the constitution that some people will want to have.
“But we think that is a distraction from the urgent need to make sure that we deal with backlog in NHS waiting lists, that we work together on economic recovery overall and that we also learn from each other when it comes to public sector recovery as well, whether it is in education or criminal justice.”
The Tory continued: “Politics is the language of priorities, our priority is to make sure we work with others on recovery at this moment.
“It is not a conversation we believe is right to have at this moment, because it can only be a diversion of energy and attention at a time when there are far more pressing issues.”
Asked specifically if the UK Government would take legal action to block a second referendum, Gove would only say: “I’m not getting into the whole question of court and litigation and all the rest of it, because if we start theorising in the area then we are sucking oxygen out of the room when we should all be concentrating on recovery.”
He added: “Other people I am sure will want to speculate or theorise about these questions, but to my mind every second spent asking questions about the Supreme Court is a second wasted when it comes to concentrating on the issues in hand.”