Johnson raises eyebrows with Scottish Office appointment

Following Douglas Ross’s resignation from the Government over Dominic Cummings, which I looked at in last week’s column, the Prime Minister has had a hole to fill at the Scottish Office.

And for all that Downing Street sources reportedly dismissed Ross as ‘Mr Nobody’, it is a hole that he has apparently decided needs to be filled by two people.

The first of these is David Duguid, one of the 2017 intake. He represents the north-easterly Scottish seat of Banff and Buchan (once Alex Salmond’s stomping ground). He says that his focus will be on agriculture, fisheries, and energy, “as well as helping with the continuing programme of growth deals around Scotland.”

He’s joined by Iain Stewart, who sits for the somewhat less Scottish constituency of Milton Keynes South, and his appointment has raised some eyebrows amongst the commentariat.

Others few it has a “shrewd choice”, pointing out that he has “much deeper roots in the Scottish party than some Scottish Tory MPs”. Indeed, Scottish-born Stewart has not only fought a Holyrood election but actually held several very senior roles in the Scottish party before moving to England.

But why not choose another Scottish MP? Well, excepting Duguid and Alister Jack, the Secretary of State, and Ross himself, Boris Johnson only had three to choose from.

These are David Mundell, whom Johnson dismissed from his Cabinet; and Andrew Bowie, who returned to the back benches in 2019 having served as Theresa May’s PPS; and John Lamont, who served as Ruth Davidson’s Chief Whip in the Scottish Parliament.

Given the supreme value the Prime Minister seems to place on loyalty to himself when making appointments, perhaps it is less surprising that he looked elsewhere.

Despite his shaky relations with the Scottish party, Johnson’s decision to beef up the Scottish Office team is hopefully a sign that he recognises that the SNP, and the spectre of another independence referendum, remain one of the most serious challenges facing his premiership.

As I detailed last week, the Scottish Tories are deeply concerned that the Government’s handling of Covid-19, and especially its horribly botched messaging, is letting the Scottish Government off the hook despite putting in an at least equally shoddy performance.

In particular, they were furious that the row over Dominic Cummings eclipsed their efforts to pin Scottish ministers down over the unfolding scandal of Scottish care home deaths. The First Minister is also being pressed to release the briefings she received during the early months of the crisis… only to admit that, extraordinarily, they were all delivered verbally.

Meanwhile Scottish councils are still waiting for over £100 million in funding owed to them by the Scottish Government, which is also encouraging quangos to exploit a loophole in the Treasury’s scheme to furlough hundreds of public sector workers… even whilst claiming that Westminster hasn’t given Scotland enough cash to meet the crisis.

Such conduct highlights yet again the folly of having the UK Treasury underwriting emergency response strategies which the UK Government isn’t overseeing – and Rishi Sunak should move swiftly to close the loophole and force Holyrood’s quangos back onto Holyrood’s dime.

But it also shows how shamelessly the SNP will exploit the strengths of the British state whilst trying to destroy it – and how extraordinary it is that, despite such a record, Sturgeon’s ratings remain sky-high.

There is less than a year until the next Scottish elections, which could produce a separatist majority and a strong (although not irresistible) demand for a re-run of the 2014 referendum. If Johnson means what he says about the Union, he needs to get his Party and his Government ready for that fight. Or at least, stop getting in the way of those already fighting.