The first words of our proprietor’s article on this site yesterday, which reported his new polling on Scottish independence, were “in the wake of Boris Johnson’s visit to Edinburgh last week”. We suspect that there is a link between that fact and the survey’s finding – namely, “the first lead for an independent Scotland for more than two years”.
For on ConservativeHome earlier this year, news appeared of another poll – one that showed dire polling for the man who has since become Prime Minister. It found Johnson’s ratings north of the border to be so poor “that they incited jaw-dropping astonishment and effectively put the Scottish party on a crisis management footing”. So reported Andy McIver, a former Head of Communications for the Party in Scotland, and the author of the article in which this claim was contained.
Scotland voted to Remain in the EU referendum, and the Conservatives are weak there. Of its 59 MPs, only 13 are Tory. In the Scottish Parliament, the Party has half the number of the SNP’s seats. Ruth Davidson has worked wonders there – putting a modern face on a Unionist message and taking the fight to Nicola Sturgeon. Were it not for the revival that she has driven, Jeremy Corbyn might well be Prime Minister today. Those 13 Westminster seats contained 12 gains: enough to make the Tory-DUP pact sustainable for the past two years. But the Conservatives have none the less travelled a long, winding and downward road since winning a majority of Scotland’s vote in 1955.
The new Prime Minister is well aware of his standing north of the border: that’s largely why he has styled himself “Minister for the Union”. It’s also why Scotland was the venue of one of his first visits. It was not entirely successful – at least, if your measure is the presence of friendly and filmeable crowds. Johnson will be identified by many Scottish voters not only as a Tory politician, or even as a pro-Brexit one too, but additionally as a pro-No Deal Brexit one. And according to our proprietor’s poll, 46 per cent of Scots think such an outcome would be disastrous.
Furthermore, these tensions boil over into poor relations between Johnson and Davidson. As McIver said, “Operation Arse”, an internal push to prevent Johnson from becoming Conservative leader, “was based on a combination of internal polling and Davidson’s own disdain for Johnson”. We calculate that only one Tory MP voted for him as their first choice.
Now that arse is squashing his opponents (to adapt the image that they themselves conjured up). The new Prime Minister fired David Mundell as Scottish Secretary – who though not exactly an opponent can scarcely be described as a supporter – and replaced him with Alister Jack. Mundell knows more about politics in Scotland than most of us are likely to forget, but the rationale for Johnson’s decision was solid. In the last event, he is committed to No Deal, and Mundell could not have rowed enthusiastically behind such a policy, if at all.
There may be a paradox at heart of the problem – that’s to say, the tensions between Johnson and Davidson, the essence of which is political rather than personal. Were it not for Brexit, it might be actually easier for the Scottish Party, and that in the rest of the UK, to diverge. After all, that election success in the 1950s, and earlier ones, were won by a party that styled itself Unionist rather than Conservative, and was in effect a separate organisation.
Some, like Murdo Fraser, want to revive a model of that kind – citing the centre-right’s approach in Canada to Quebec. Others, like Davidson herself, declare themselves firmly opposed. There may be other ways of cutting the cake. On this site, Henry Hill has written that “recent speculation about a part-breakaway by the Scottish Conservatives could furnish a model through which Unionists could part-integrate their Northern Irish fellows, such as creating a Canada-style integrated party or Australia-style permanent coalition for Westminster elections whilst retaining a separate organisation for devolved matters”.
The question is whether or not a different-but-linked Scottish Party, presumably opposed to a No Deal Brexit, could say take one on the matter while Johnson takes another, and thrive none the less. After all, “most 2017 Conservative voters backed Boris Johnson’s position that the UK should leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal”, according to the Ashcroft polling. Which returns us to where we started.