PM hopeful Andrea Leadsom stunned Westminster by opening the door to a second vote on Scottish independence.
The former Commons Leader said she would “never say never” to the prospect of another indy vote.
And she insisted it would be “disrespectful” to the Scottish Parliament for the UK Government to rule it out.
It sparked a furious backlash among MPs and threatened to derail her bid for No10.
Speaking at a lunch with journalists in Westminster, Mrs Leadsom said: “The reason I say ‘never say never’ is because I do not think that there should be another independence referendum in Scotland, I do not think it’s in their interest, but on the other hand I am a big believer in devolution.
“So, what I just want to say is I am not going to stand here and utterly rule it out because I think that that is disrespectful.
“But I would very strongly fight against a second referendum, which I don’t think is in the interest of Scotland and it’s definitely not in the interests of the UK.
“What I think we have to be doing is promote the strength of the UK working together far stronger, far more than we have done, and I have a number of policy areas that I would use to try and make that happen.”
Labour MP for Edinburgh South, a former Shadow Scottish Secretary, said her comments showed the Tories couldn’t be trusted to keep the union together.
He blasted: “This shows that the Tories can’t be trusted to protect Scotland’s place in the Union.
“The majority of people in Scotland don’t want a divisive second independence referendum and have rejected both the nationalism of the SNP and the Tories.
“With Boris Johnson threatening to make Scots workers pay towards tax cuts for the wealthiest people in England, this disgusting Tory leadership contest is putting the Union at risk.
“These Tories must stop putting their party before the country in their desperate scramble for the keys to No10.
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“Ruth Davidson can’t remain silent on this – she must explain how she is going to stand up for the Union amidst these Tory attempts to create further division.”
But the comments delighted Scottish nationalists.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “The Scottish Parliament has voted to hold an independence referendum. Andrea Leadsom is right to recognise that it would be deeply disrespectful for Westminster to rule it out – it would be a democratic outrage for the Tories to stand in the way of democracy.”
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