Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government cannot be relied on to work with UK ministers in “good faith”, Theresa May has said.
The outgoing prime minister used a speech in Scotland to hit out at the SNP Government in Edinburgh – saying it would “only ever seek to further the agenda of separation”.
That, she insisted, was “simply a fact of political life in the UK at the moment”.
Mrs May, who finishes her term in Downing Street in just over two weeks, also told the candidates battling to succeed her that a no-deal Brexit would have “undoubted consequences” for the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
While both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have said they would take the UK out of the European Union without a deal if necessary, Mrs May cautioned against that.
Instead, the outgoing Prime Minister insisted securing a “good” Brexit deal was vital to the future of the UK.
Speaking on her final visit to Scotland as PM, Mrs May said: “Leaving with a good deal, one that works for the whole UK, is the very best possible outcome and the right one to be working towards.
“It means we can get on and build a good new relationship with our European friends and partners.
“And it is far better than leaving without a deal – which would have undoubted consequences for our economy and for the Union.”
She said a “lot of people have taken the Union for granted over the years”, but insisted she was “optimistic” about its future, despite the “challenge” posed by Brexit.
However, Mrs May said the work to preserve the 312-year old Union would have to be done by the UK Government.
Speaking in Stirling, the Prime Minister said: “Over the last three years, I have learned that while other parties can be relied on to work with the UK Government in good faith to make devolution a success, an SNP Scottish government will only ever seek to further the agenda of separation.
“That, I am afraid, is simply a fact of political life in the UK at the moment.”
But she said this placed “additional responsibility” on UK ministers, saying: “If we do not do all we can to realise the full benefits of the Union – no-one else will.”
Mrs May added: “If we do not make realising the full benefits of being a United Kingdom of four proud nations and one united people our priority now, then in the future it may be too late.”
To help achieve that, she confirmed former Scotland Office minister Lord Dunlop has been tasked with carrying out an independent review, which will look at the “structures of the UK Government to ensure that they are set up to realise fully all the benefits of being a United Kingdom”.
Mrs May also insisted that she was confident her successor would “make the Union a priority”.
While she accepted Brexit “certainly poses a challenge for the Union” after Scots voted to stay part of the EU in 2016, Mrs May insisted delivering Brexit could be done at the same time as preserving the make-up of the UK.
“The question of maintaining the Union, protecting the Union and delivering Brexit are not opposites,” she told the audience in Stirling.
“They are not two things that cannot be achieved together.”
And she argued: “The only threat to devolution comes from those parties who want to end it by breaking up the United Kingdom.”
Ms Sturgeon, however, insisted that Scotland was “heading inexorably towards independence” – adding that would be Mrs May’s “legacy”.
The First Minister stated: “The Tories’ behaviour towards Scotland in the three years since the Brexit vote has been high-handed, arrogant and dismissive.
“They have demolished any notion of a respect agenda and have destroyed their own claims that the Union is in any meaningful way a partnership of equals. People across Scotland can now see that more plainly than ever.”