GLASGOW — Theresa May visited Scotland on Friday in her first official engagement as Britain’s new Prime Minister in a clear indication of the strength of her commitment to maintaining the “special Union” between the United Kingdom’s four nations and people.
And the new Conservative Party leader will deliver a message to Scots, saying: “The government I lead will always be on your side.”
May is holding talks with Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon in Bute House in Edinburgh, in which she will stress how she wants the Scottish government to form a central part of the Brexit process — Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Ahead of her visit, 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.
“I want to say something else to the people of Scotland too: the government I lead will 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. Whether it’s reforming the economy or strengthening our society, we are going to build a better Britain and a nation that works for everyone; not just the privileged few,” she added.
However, the potential for an early intergovernmental clash is high as May has been adamant that “Brexit means Brexit” while Sturgeon has insisted, given Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, that from her perspective “Remain means Remain.”
Within the government the new prime minister is regarded as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator. She is thought to have believed David Cameron caved in too easily to demands by the pro-independence Scottish National Party before and after the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country.
One source, reflecting on the prospect raised by Sturgeon of a second independence referendum, said: “Theresa is a tough cookie and will not give ground as easily as David did.”
Sturgeon said she was hoping for a constructive discussion but stressed: “I respect how people in other parts of the U.K. voted; I hope the prime minister will respect how people in Scotland voted." Scotland voted to remain in the EU in the referendum last month. The U.K. overall voted to leave.
"My job is to seek to protect Scotland’s interests and I’ve said I’m open to seeking to do that through the U.K. process. If I’m going to be able to do that, then she has to make the process open and flexible," Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon said a second Scottish independence referendum could be the only way to secure Scotland’s interests and protect its EU membership but stressed she wanted to "explore all options".
David Davis, the new secretary of state for Brexit, suggested Britain could quit the EU by December 2018, noting how a “brisk but measured approach to Brexit” was achievable.
Earlier this week, David Mundell, the reappointed Scottish Secretary, suggested he was open to Scotland having a different Brexit deal to the rest of the UK if it was “doable”.
But Philip Hammond, the new Treasury chief, made clear this would not happen, pointing out how the people of the U.K. had voted “collectively” to leave the EU.
Sturgeon described these comments as "deeply disappointing," adding: "I hope the new prime minister,Hammond and all of the U.K. government will understand that we are absolutely serious when it comes to achieving our goal of protecting Scotland’s vital interests."
She spoke after the first meeting of the Standing Council on Europe, which she set up to advise the Scottish government following the vote to leave the EU on June 23.
The body is made up of 18 legal, economic and diplomatic specialists and chairman Anton Muscatelli said they would examine how best to secure Scotland’s place in the EU.
May spent Thursday appointing and firing ministers from the Cabinet. One insider said: “This is not a reshuffle but a completely new government.”
Those ministers who were sacked, including Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, John Whittingdale and Theresa Villiers, were told their services were no longer needed in early morning private meetings.
Later in Downing Street, the procession of promoted ministers and those who survived the chop took place before television cameras. Among the winners were a string of women and Brexiters.
These included Justine Greening promoted to the education brief, Liz Truss, who succeeds Gove as justice secretary, and leading Leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom, who takes on the environment portfolio.
May’s office made clear that the new premier had created “a bold cabinet, which was hitting the ground running” with ministers already having met some of their foreign counterparts for talks.
“What you have seen with the appointments today is that commitment to putting social reform at the heart of her government," declared May’s spokeswoman.
The creation of specific Cabinet posts for exiting the EU and boosting international trade "underlines the commitment to delivering on the decision of the British people," she added.
But the opposition Labour Party said the promotion of a string of right-wingers contradicted the new premier’s "warm words" on her entry into Downing St. about seeking to govern "not for a privileged few but for every one of us".
Meantime, the prime minister, who has already taken telephone calls from Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande, had a 15-minute congratulatory telephone call from President Obama.