His unpopularity in Scotland is unparalleled.
The news of a ‘union task force’ within the UK Government comes at a particularly desperate time for Scotland’s unionists. Its task is to put forward an ‘emotional’ case for the United Kingdom, with one Tory MP saying that it will “make sure the union is at the heart of everything we do.”
The problem is not just that the task at hand is a rather difficult one, it is also that Boris Johnson and his colleagues seem to be doing almost everything in their power to make it harder.
In a Zoom call with new MPs this week, Johnson described devolution as a “disaster” for Scotland, branding it “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake.” Putting aside the fact that Tony Blair made many mistakes that are many times worse than any aspect of devolution, it is hard to think of a greater blunder that Johnson could have made at a time when independence has been ahead for 14 successive polls and there is a Scottish election only 6 months away.
The handling of the leak has not exactly inspired confidence either. Downing Street has been unable to deny the reports (probably because anyone who would leak something like that is also likely to have kept the receipts). So instead the strategy has been to claim that what Johnson really meant was simply that the SNP has mishandled public services (which of course makes no sense considering the reference to Tony Blair).
The Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick, drew the short straw of having to keep a straight face while road-testing this new line. Earlier this week he told Sky News that the PM has always “supported devolution” and that is has been “misused by the SNP.” Dodging a question about the reference to it being Tony Blair’s mistake, Jenrick claimed that the disaster the Johnsons was alluding to was “the rise of separatism.” So far, so unconvincing.
Scottish Tory woes pile-up
One person who cannot have been happy is the new Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, who was forced to join-in with the Johnson-whispering routine by Tweeting “Devolution has not been a disaster. The SNP’s non-stop obsession with another referendum – above jobs, schools and everything else – has been a disaster.”
After a short-lived uptick in their fortunes, the Scottish Tories are back to flatlining in polls. The ousting of previous leader Jackson Carlaw does not seem to have helped matters. Nor does the fact that the deputy leader, who is also their best recognised MSP, Ruth Davidson, has removed much of her gravitas by announcing she is leaving Holyrood for a seat in the House of Lords.
Unfortunately, Ross, has not made much of a mark, with only 22% of Scots saying he is doing a good job as Tory leader. His media operation is a good one, but he’s undoubtedly being held back by the unparalleled unpopularity of Boris Johnson, with polls showing that three quarters of Scots dislike the PM.
It is no wonder that some Scottish Tories are starting to tire of their association, with one ‘senior Tory’ source telling the Daily Telegraph “Boris’s comments epitomised the problem that whatever we do in Scotland is undercut by Westminster.”
Over recent years there has been a debate among Scottish Tories about the prospect of breaking away from their Westminster colleagues. The idea was initially floated by the former deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, during his unsuccessful leadership campaign in 2011. It was raised again in 2019 by the party’s constitutional relations spokesperson, Adam Tomkins MSP who said he was among those that was “open to it.” It feels like a debate we will see and hear more of in the months ahead.
The campaign to save the union
The task force will have its work cut-out, but this is not even the first time that Johnson has launched a group to save the union. In January, Johnson gave himself the additional title of ‘Minister for the Union’ and established a ‘Union unit’ in Downing Street.
It can’t have been very effective as by August a new initiative was being spearheaded by Michael Gove, who was apparently set to join forces with such luminaries as Danny Alexander and George Galloway to take the fight to the Nationalists. Will this third stab at it fare any better?
With the Holyrood elections looking far more likely to return a pro-independence majority, Johnson and his colleagues will be in a new and more difficult position.
Ruling out a referendum now is relatively easy, the COVID crisis means that not even the SNP are actively pushing for one. However, it will be a much harder line to hold-to once the pandemic has passed and Scotland has elected a new SNP government with a mandate to hold one.
The UK Government has always been able to rely on the fact that even pro-independence Scots have tended to be wary of a second referendum taking place in the short-term. However, the latest polls show that support for a referendum now outstrips support for independence, with almost two thirds of Scots agreeing that there should be a vote in the next parliamentary term.
The problems for the Union are far greater than one man. However, with the increasing likelihood of Scotland’s future being put to the ballot again in the years ahead, the new task group will be left with an uncomfortable truth: if the PM wants to play his role in saving the Union, then the best thing he could do is resign.
Andrew Smith is a Glasgow-based political campaigner. He works for a human rights organisation and Tweets at @Andrew_graeme.
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