MICHAEL Gove has refused to rule out the UK Government taking legal action to stop Holyrood holding a second independence referendum without Westminster’s consent.

The Cabinet Office minister, who is in Scotland this week, twice refused to give a straight answer on the point in a briefing with journalists.

On Sunday, Mr Gove gave a series of ambiguous answers to the question on TV shows, saying he didn’t want to discuss the possibility of a Supreme Court challenge.

Asked point blank today if he was ruling out a challenge, he dismissed the issue as “theorising” and “abstract debate” and tried to change the subject, but did not deny it was a possibility.

After the SNP won a landslide fourth term in last week’s Holyrood election, Nicola Sturgeon said she would press ahead with Indyref2 when the Covid pandemic allowed. 

The First Minister has said she wants the vote by 2024, then independence in 2026.

In a phone call with Mr Johnson on Sunday, she told the Prime Minister another referendum was now “a matter of when not if”, despite his previous refusal to allow it.

Asked about the FM's remark, Mr Gove said: “Our focus is purely and principally on recovery at the moment. So of course there is a conversation about the constitution that some people will want to have.

“But we think that is a distraction from the urgent need to make sure that we deal with backlog in NHS waiting lists, that we work together on economic recovery overall and that we also learn from each other when it comes to public sector recovery as well, whether it is in education or criminal justice.”

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The Tory MP continued: “Politics is the language of priorities, our priority is to make sure we work with others on recovery at this moment.

“It is not a conversation we believe is right to have at this moment, because it can only be a diversion of energy and attention at a time when there are far more pressing issues.”

Ms Sturgeon has said that if Mr Johnson refuses to grant Holyrood the powers needed to hold a legally watertight referendum, the pro-independence parliament would pass its own Bill regardless, efectively daring Mr Johnson to challenge it at the UK Supreme Court.

Asked specifically if the UK Government would take legal action in such circumstances, Mr Gove would only say: “I’m not getting into the whole question of court and litigation and all the rest of it, because if we start theorising in the area then we are sucking oxygen out of the room when we should all be concentrating on recovery.

“Other people I am sure will want to speculate or theorise about these questions, but to my mind every second spent asking questions about the Supreme Court is a second wasted when it comes to concentrating on the issues in hand.”

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Pressed again for a yes or no answer, he said: “As I say, I’m not thinking about it. I’m not going there.

"We’re concentrating on recovery in the NHS, recovery in the economy, recovery in education, recovery in the criminal justice system. That is our focus.”

Mr Gove even refused to say if a party ought to deliver  its manifesto pledges if it had the votes to do so.

He was asked: “If a political party wins an election, does that give it a mandate to implement its manifesto in government, provided it ghets the votes?”

Mr Gove replied: “I think all political parties will want to reflect at this time on the campaign that’s just been run and the priorities that the public sent them to office to fulfil.

“I think the critical things is, as the First Minister herself said, her aim, her principal aim was to amke sure we had and effective recovery from Covid.

“Nicola said, when you’re thinking who you should vote for, you should be thinking about which first minister you want to carry on with continuity of recovery work, and that was her principal message and of course we respect that.”

After it was pointed out that wasn’t an answer to the question, and it was put to him a second time, Mr Gove again failed to answer it.

He said: “I’m sure that the First Minister will put propositions to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Parliament will have a chance to reflect on any propositions she puts. 

“But I respect the fact that she said her focus was on the recovery and I think that’s the right focus.”

Earlier, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said Indyref2 shoudl go ahead when coronavirus is suppressed and “stable”.

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He told BBC Radio Scotland: “We judge it by a combination of things – the actions that we’ve got to take to suppress the prevalence of the virus, and to make sure that we are in a stable position.

“Secondly, that we are able to sustain that position to make sure that we’ve got the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure that the virus is suppressed.

“If the pandemic meets those tests, then obviously we are able to consider the whole question of the timing of the referendum on independence.”

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the SNP should focus on the pandemic and delivering manifesto pledges “within the remit of the Scottish Parliament”, not Indyref2.

He said another referendum would create “uncertainty and division all over again”.