Rishi Altar/Scottish Parliament
Rishi Sunak returned to London this morning after spending two days in Scotland.
His visit included a private dinner with Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday evening, during which the two discussed, among other things, the many issues that divided them.
Still, the prime minister said he wanted the two to “strengthen our working relationship and continue to discuss our common challenges and our joint efforts to serve the people of Scotland”.
But, as HuffPost UK understands, that laudable will will be shattered next Wednesday if the Sunak government takes the unprecedented step of blocking the enactment of a bill passed in Holyrood.
The law in question is the Gender Recognition Reform Act, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament before Christmas after a heated debate that highlighted divisions among the main parties on the issue.
In simple terms, the new law will make it easier for trans people to switch gender by reducing the time it takes to process and lowering the age at which this can happen.
The Westminster government has no intention of introducing a similar bill, which only raises potential legal issues over how Scottish law will affect the implementation of the Equality Act in the UK.
Ministers in London can circumvent Holyrood law in such cases by activating section 35 of the Scotland Act, which created the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
This would prevent the head of the Scottish Parliament from sending the bill to the King for royal assent.
Scottish Foreign Secretary Alister Jack will announce on Wednesday that the UK government will block the bill, Whitehall sources said.
Coming at a time when the SNP is accusing Westminster of “denying democracy” by not allowing another independence referendum, this would be the political equivalent of throwing a match into a fireworks box.
Sunak had “constructive” talks with Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland on Thursday.
Asked about the subject while in Scotland, the Altar said very little.
“Obviously this is a very sensitive area and I know there was a lot of fierce debate and exchange of views on this as the bill was passed in Scotland,” he said.
“What I am concerned about is the impact of the bill across the UK.
“There may be impacts across the UK that we need to be aware of and understand their impact on and that’s what we are doing and the government will determine the next steps after receiving the final advice.”
Stephen Flynn, SNP leader at Westminster, gave a preview of what his party’s reaction would be if the UK government did indeed veto the Gender Reform Recognition Act.
He said: “This goes to the heart of Scottish democracy, as Scotland’s democratically elected parliament has passed the law on gender recognition and the UK government will potentially seek to undermine it. This is not clear.
But this is not a simple problem for the SNP.
The debate in the Scottish Parliament saw the biggest revolt against the party leadership since taking power in 2007, with some SNP MSPs voting against what they saw as an attack on women’s gendered rights.
The SNP’s Westminster group is also split, with Edinburgh South West MP Joanna Cherry one of the most vocal opponents of the Scottish government’s position.
Will these SNP rebels support the UK government, which has blocked a law they hate, or will they get behind Sturgeon for what their party claims is an attack on devolution?
Joanna Cherry speaks at the Scotland for Women and Scottish Feminist Network demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament, ahead of last month’s vote on the Gender Recognition Reform Act.
A constitutional expert told HuffPost UK that the dispute would end in the High Court, which ruled in November that the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to hold its own independence referendum.
“Using such a radical mechanism as veto power adds more to the SNP narrative of Westminster’s rejection of democracy, which seems politically risky to me,” they said.
“Like We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the devolution, this is a big moment.”
For all his warm words about cooperating with the Scottish government, it seems certain that Sunak is only days away from a constitutional crisis that could result in determining the UK’s future.