Last month, I wrote about the anger amongst senior Conservatives at the way their Scottish colleagues were running their Holyrood campaign.
In an effort to hold on to pro-Union voters and stay ahead of Labour, they had put the SNP’s central message – that a Nationalist majority meant another independence referendum – at the very centre of their campaign.
The problem? That Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted that he will not grant the Section 30 order needed to hold one legally. So implicit in the Scottish Tories messaging (which did not specify that they meant a ‘wildcat’ poll) was the suggestion that he was lying about that.
It got even worse this week, when the party’s official Twitter account claimed that “an SNP majority is a guarantee of another independence referendum”.
An SNP majority is a guarantee of another independence referendum.
If pro-UK voters unite and use their peach ballots for the @ScotTories, we can deny the SNP a majority and deliver a Parliament 100% focused on rebuilding Scotland. #PeachVoteTory pic.twitter.com/uOwq41IyaY
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) May 3, 2021
A clarification was scrambled out, but the damage was done. One irate Tory MSP, who had previously defending the campaign strategy after my last column on it, was scathing: “This is what happens when you put 12 year olds in charge of the Party’s media operation”.
Meanwhile the Government is toughening up its messaging about resisting any referendum push. Earlier this week the Daily Telegraph reported that ministers were prepared to take the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court to prevent it unilaterally holding a ‘binding’ referendum on independence. This leaves open the question of what they might do about Holyrood trying to stage a so-called ‘consultative’ referendum. New guidelines or legislation to forbid Scottish civil servants – who are part of the Home Civil Service – from working on projects which are ultra vires might be a place to start.
The Prime Minister is also preparing to invest billions of public money in shoring up the Union and demonstrating the utility of the British state to ordinary voters. These plans are reportedly based on those left behind by Oliver Lewis, the former head of the now-dissolved Union Unit. But there is concern amongst his allies that this is being done haphazardly, without the long-term strategic and structural measures that were supposed to cement the reforms.
In the meantime, the SNP itself continues to back away from its central policy. Nicola Sturgeon is downplaying the prospect of an immediate vote. It has minimised references to a referendum on most of its literature and declined to put one on the ballot paper. And now new evidence finds that not only do most Scottish voters disagree with the First Minister’s proposed timetable, but even a substantial chunk of SNP voters are bitterly opposed to one!
There is plenty of material here for the Government to assert that even a Nationalist majority at Holyrood is no clear demand from the Scottish people for another referendum, in light of both polling on the actual question and the SNP’s apparent allergy to their central policy during the campaign.
All they need to do is overcome two things: the sort of defeatist official who keep trying to breathe life back into ‘devo max’ – and the Scottish Conservative campaign.
Donaldson challenges Poots for the DUP leadership
As I wrote last week, the putsch against Arlene Foster most likely means a much harder line against the Northern Irish Protocol from the Democratic Unionist Party. But as the DUP gears up for the first competitive leadership contest in its history, the exact shape of its future remains uncertain.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, has stepped in to challenge Edwin Poots, the long-serving MLA for… Lagan Valley.
Poots has attracted attention for his creationist and social-conservative views, and his election would be unlikely to do anything to enhance the party’s connections to politics on the mainland. Donaldson on the other hand is an ex-Ulster Unionist (he defected at the same time as Arlene Foster), and being an MP has much stronger links to the Conservatives. He was reportedly an enthusiast for a deeper and more formal relationship between the two parties when Theresa May reched out to the DUP after the 2017 election.
Should Donaldson lose, and Poots shift his party to try and staunch support from training away to Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, there is a chance that Donaldson and other more moderate voices might need a new political home. Might he make a return journey to the moribund UUP? Or might, as local activists hope, he be open to a serious offer from the Conservatives?