Michael Gove has insisted Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom after a Brexit vote – because the SNP would not risk calling another independence referendum.
Last week David Cameron said he was worried a vote to leave the EU in next week's referendum would lead to a second independence vote. But Gove, one of the most prominent anti-EU campaigners, said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon lacks a mandate to hold one.
Speaking to journalists during a campaign trip to Glasgow, Gove played down the risk of the union disintegrating and also said he believes Sturgeon wouldn't want another vote on independence immediately after a Brexit vote because she knows she would lose it and see off the cause of Scottish independence for good.
"The SNP don't have that mandate [for another independence vote]," the justice secretary said, "and it seems pretty clear from everything the SNP are saying that they don't want to call a second referendum now because they know they would lose and the people of Scotland don't want [independence] to happen."
Sturgeon has repeatedly said that if voters in Scotland vote to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole votes to leave there would be an increased appetite for independence.
However, Gove insisted the result is "completely open" in Scotland and that "a large number" of SNP voters are backing his campaign.
"I wouldn't take anything for granted about how Scotland is going to vote," said Gove. "Until recently, without any politicians of note in Scotland making the case for Leave you still had, even at the most pessimistic estimate, a third of the people of Scotland wanting to leave. I think it will be significantly higher."
He added: "There are a large number of SNP members who want us to leave the EU, though it's not the official policy of the party leadership. If you do believe in sovereign control, in democracy, then the EU is an anti-democratic institution. The five presidents are people most couldn't name, who we didn't elect, and who we can't get rid of. "
Asked if he would accept the referendum result if Scotland kept England inside the EU against its will, as polling experts have told BuzzFeed News is possible, Gove said: "We're all voting as individuals within the United Kingdom on a level playing field. If the result is that a majority of people vote to remain, however that divides across the individual nations of the United Kingdom, I will accept that."
The justice secretary denied that there will be an irreparable split in his party following 23 June's vote despite the repeated personal attacks between Conservatives during the campaign. He refused to criticise the prime minister, saying that they simply disagreed on European policy but nothing else.
"For my part, and I think on the part of almost everyone in the Conservative party, in the interests of good government, we will accept the verdict whatever it is and seek to implement it in the best interests of the British people," said Gove.
"I think the political aftermath will see the government come together and see the country come together in order to make sure whatever the instructions are the people have given are implemented fairly. We've been careful to stress the only areas we disagree with the prime minister are over European policy."
Gove was a vocal part of the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom in 2014 that was the original "project fear" – a phrase he has used to criticise the pro-EU campaign in this referendum. However, despite now being the target of such negative attacks, he said he had no regrets over his interventions then, such as claiming Scottish independence would "invigorate" Vladimir Putin.
"I think that was true and I think people will make a judgment about the quality of the arguments that are made on either side," said Gove. "I don't criticise the other side for making the argument they do, I allow people in Scotland and across the United Kingdom to make their own judgment."
The justice secretary also denied that there was any contradiction in backing the UK to stay together so passionately but supporting the breakup of the EU.
"Eighteen months ago people in Scotland made the decision that the United Kingdom was a union that works; people know the European Union is a union that doesn't work," said Gove.
"That's why I confidently expect that more and more people between now and 23 June will decide to vote Leave."
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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