Brexit will not be formally triggered until the end of the month, Downing Street has revealed.
With the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill set to clear Parliament on Monday night, some MPs and civil servants had been braced for the possibility that Theresa May could trigger on Tuesday the Article 50 process of the UK quitting the EU.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman finally killed off the speculation by stressing “in capital letters” that the likely trigger date would be by “the END” of the March.
After being passed by the Lords, the Brexit bill is set to become law once the Queen gives her Royal Assent on Tuesday morning.
Speculation had been allowed to run over the weekend that May could then use her Commons Statement on the EU summit to make the historic announcement that she was notifying Brussels that Britain was quitting the 28-country bloc.
Asked if the Prime Minister intended to trigger Article 50 tomorrow, her spokesman said: “We have been clear. The Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 by the end of March.”
He then added: “I’ve said END many times but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters quite strongly enough.”
HuffPost UK has been told by senior Government sources that the week of March 27th is now the period when Article 50 will be triggered.
The EU celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding Treaty of Rome next week and May is on record as saying she does not want to ruin the event for the other EU nations.
But the stronger line from Downing Street sparked fresh claims from some SNP supporters that No.10 had been forced to delay its announcement by Nicola Sturgeon’s surprise warning that she was ready to declare a second independence referendum for Scotland.
Scotland’s First Minister pulled off a PR coup on Monday morning as she declared that a second poll would give her country a clear choice between remaining in the EU in and independent country - or staying in a UK under a ‘hard Brexit’.
She has talked of the autumn of 2018 being a ‘common sense’ time for a second referendum.
May hit back by again accusing Sturgeon of “tunnel vision” about independence.
“It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty,” the PM said.
“This is at a time when the Scottish people, the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.
“Instead of playing politics with the future of our country the Scottish government should focus on delivering good government and public services for the people of Scotland. Politics is not a game.”
A UK Government spokesman had earlier said: “Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.”
The implication that there was a better “possible time” was seized on by critics, but No.10 refused to say whether May would allow the legal process for a second referendum on independence.
“We do not think there should be a second referendum,” the PM’s spokesman would only say.
Some Tory MPs believe that if the Scottish Parliament - where the SNP and Greens have a pro-independence majority - votes to trigger a new referendum, May will cave to pressure to approve one.
However, some of the PM’s allies want her to delay any referendum until after Brexit in 2019, so that Scots voters will be able to make a clear choice between Brexit Britain and an independent Scotland.
On Monday, her spokesman was asked if there would be greater clarity on the Government’s position after the Scottish Parliament had voted to invoke the 2012 Scotland Act’s ‘Section 30’ powers to ask for a new referendum. He replied: “I’m sure that will be the case.”
HuffPost UK has been told that even if May does table an order sparking the independence referendum, some of her own MPs - and many Labour MPs - could vote against the idea.
Although the Commons and Lords unanimously passed an order for the 2014 referendum, MPs and peers may not be as keen to do so a second time.
Labour MPs see Scottish independence as a real threat to the party’s chance of ever winning power in the UK and if they join forces with Tory rebels could block any referendum bid.