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Theresa May has moved to postpone a second independence referendum indefinitely after refusing to set out the specific criteria Nicola Sturgeon must meet to justify another vote.

The Prime Minister, Ruth Davidson and David Mundell repeatedly refused to be pinned down on how Ms Sturgeon would meet the Tory manifesto’s key test that there would not be another vote without “public consent.”

Ms Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, shied away from her previous suggestion that consistent 60 per cent support in the polls for another referendum would suffice, instead citing the political unanimity for the 2014 vote as the “gold standard.”

Neither would they provide any detail on the manifesto’s refusal to countenance a referendum “until the Brexit process has played out”, with Mr Mundell saying he did not know how long this would take.

However, the Scottish Secretary admitted this may rule out an independence vote before the 2021 Holyrood election. This would force Ms Sturgeon to put an unequivocal promise of another referendum before the Scottish people and seek a clear mandate, an extremely difficult task.

The hardening of their opposition to a second referendum came after Mrs May and Ms Davidson launched the Scottish Conservative manifesto in Edinburgh, with the party optimistic of making major gains if it can persuade Labour supporters to vote tactically.

The Prime Minister warned that: “A vote for any other party is to weaken our Union, to weaken our negotiating hand in Europe and to put our future prosperity and security at risk.”

In a direct pitch to disillusioned Scottish Labour supporters, she urged them to “think not about who you have voted for in the past, but about who you want to lead our country in the future, who will get the best deal for the whole UK from Brexit.”

Ms Davidson pledged that she and Mrs May “won’t roll over” when Ms Sturgeon demands another referendum. The Scottish Tory leader said she will “fight and fight again” to protect the decision Scots made in the 2014 referendum.

In a direct message to Ms Sturgeon, the Scottish Tory leader said: “The Prime Minister says she’s a bloody difficult woman. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Alex Salmond said the Scottish Tories were “mired in complete and confusion on the constitution” as they “haven’t got the guts or the gumption to say how” they intend to block a second referendum.

But the row broke out only days after Ms Sturgeon staged a major retreat by stating it was “if” rather than “when” there would be a second referendum. Ms Davidson predicted she would revert after the June 8 election to claiming that SNP votes equate to support for independence.

The Scottish Tory manifesto repeated the pledge in the previous day’s UK blueprint to oppose a second referendum but the Prime Minister refused to be drawn when she was twice asked to explain how the public “public consent” test would be measured.

She said: “Talking about a second independence referendum at this time is trying to pull us apart, just at the very time that as a nation, as the United Kingdom, we should be pulling together.”

Ms Davidson also refused to specify the criteria for consent, saying: “This isn’t about timings, dates, parliaments, whatever, this is about the principle.”

The Scottish Tory argued the best example was the run-up to the 2014 referendum when the Nationalists had won a majority at the previous Holyrood election, every MSP voted for it and there was “92 per cent support across the country.”

“We need something a lot more like what we had in 2011/12 before I think the UK Government should give its consent,” she added.

Although the Scottish Parliament has voted to give Ms Sturgeon the authority to hold talks with Mrs May to get the powers for a second referendum, it was only by a margin of 69 votes to 59. SNP and Green MSPs backed the move, with the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats opposed.

Mr Mundell said: “We’re not setting a definitive set of criteria – what we’re saying is that public consent has to be apparent.”

The Scottish Secretary said “sustained support” from the public would be needed, but when asked to define this, he added: “We’re not getting into that.” However, he added: “I think people will know public consent when they see it.”

He agreed Brexit will not have “played out” until any transitional arrangements between the UK and EU are complete and the relevant powers repatriated from Brussels are passed to Holyrood, a process that is expected to take many years.

Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, said: “The Scottish Tories are mired in complete and utter confusion on the constitution. There is already a cast-iron democratic mandate for Scotland to have a choice, based on last year’s Holyrood election and the subsequent vote of the Scottish Parliament. 

“The Tories want to deny and to block that mandate, but they haven’t the got the guts or the gumption to say how. That lack of clarity betrays the weakness of their position – they know that their behaviour is antidemocratic and that it will not hold.”

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