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A new relationship?

Peter Geoghegan, Glasgow
July 22, 2016

Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon are all currently dealing with their own particular crises. But as Peter Geoghegan discovered, the latter two's relationship could be defining for the UK's future.

UK PM Theresa May with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Last Friday, Scottish first minster Nicola Sturgeon tweeted an image from the steps of Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh. Despite the light rain, the SNP leader is smiling as she shakes hands with Theresa May, the UK's new prime minister. "Politics aside," Sturgeon tweeted, "I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them."

The two women could hardly be more different: one is the 59-year-old daughter of an English vicar, committed to the UK; the other, a 46-year old from post-industrial Ayrshire who converted to Scottish independence aged just 16. But their relationship could come to define the future of the United Kingdom, and its role in Europe.

It was telling that May made Scotland the destination for her first trip as British premier, barely 48 hours after succeeding David Cameron as Conservative party leader. While the UK voted to leave the European Union, almost two-thirds of Scots voted to remain.

Brexit has put the issue of Scottish independence firmly back on the political agenda. Just hours after the vote to leave the EU, Sturgeon told journalists that a second referendum on independence was "very likely." Sturgeon has said that she will do everything in her power to protect Scotland's position in the EU

Speaking in Edinburgh last week, May said that Scots had "had their vote" on the separation from England. But the new prime minister will need to use the carrot as well as the stick if she is to dampen calls for independence.

Sturgeon could yet find a sympathetic ear in May, who campaigned for a remain vote. During their meeting in Edinburgh, the Tory leader told her Scottish national party counterpart that she would not trigger article 50 until "a UK-wide approach" has been agreed for negotiations to leave the European Union.

Reports suggest it could be the new year before May formally invokes Brexit. Scottish opposition to leaving could provide a useful pretext for dragging out this process further and to push for concessions in areas around freedom of movement that some within May's own party oppose.

A lot could depend on how the relationship between the two leaders develops. Last week's initial meeting between the British and Scottish leaders was "frosty" and "formal," a senior Scottish Conservative source told DW. "Neither gave much away," he said.

two pairs of shoes copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Todd
It's a shoo-in to guess whose shoes belong to whomImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Todd

But the public tone between the two women was markedly different to that between Sturgeon and David Cameron. "We are both women who approach business in a similar way, so I think we can have a good working relationship, notwithstanding those political differences," the SNP leader told the press.

The new British prime minister has a reputation for being aloof, not given to easy chatter or shared confidences. "She's sphinx-like," a former Conservative backbencher once said.

But May will do everything she can to ensure the union survives Brexit, Scottish secretary David Mundell told DW.

"She is committed to the United Kingdom, she is someone in Scotland who is respected, she is not a Boris Johnson who could be characterized as a little Englander. I think people in Scotland do respect people who work hard and do their job," he said.

May, who met with European leaders this week, is "someone who can go toe to toe with Angela Merkel," Mundell added.

Others, however, have queried whether May, an English Home Counties Conservative, can make a compelling appeal for the union in Scotland. The Tories currently hold just one of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster.

Flag of Scotland Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/A. Dennis
Sturgeon has said she will do everything in her power to protect Scotland's position in the EUImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Dennis

"In contrast with Mr Cameron, who stuck me as having a sincere, deeply felt, if rather patrician vision of the union - May has none. She sounds a dead note on Scotland," says Andrew Tickell, an SNP member and columnist in the Times.

Whether May has the personal and political qualities needed to manage an increasingly disunited kingdom remains to be seen. She has a no-nonsense style, an approach that might not always be best suited to managing competing national and regional demands.

There was a glimpse of that on Monday when, at short notice, May called a Commons vote on Trident, UK's nuclear deterrent. The new prime minister, looking to exploit divisions in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party, won handsomely. But just one Scottish MP supported renewing the nuclear submarines, which are housed barely 20 miles from Glasgow.

Reflecting on May's willingness to use such a politically divisive issue in Scotland to score political points over the UK Labour party, Scottish commentator Iain Macwhirter suggested that while May and Sturgeon might smile for the television cameras, politically the female bonhomie is unlikely to last long.

"The First Minister and the Prime Minister may be happy to have cordial conversations about the value of women in politics. But after the hand-shakes they are on a collision course," he told DW.

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