It has come to a unpretty pass when a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom must keep details of his visit to part of his own country under special wraps to avoid protesters. But so it was yesterday during Boris Johnson’s visit to Scotland. His poll performance there seems to be particularly poor – one survey last autumn found negative ratings for handling Covid-19, another that he simply has those ratings per se, and very bad ones.
Which leaves the Government, and the Conservative Party which forms it, with the following options, on the face of it. A) Send him even less often. B) Send him more often and hope that Scottish voters change their mind. C) Send another Minister instead. D) Get rid of him and send his replacement instead.
We are against Option D, but expect it to become more of a talking-point among the Prime Minister’s internal opponents if, as Britain emerges from Covid, the SNP win a majority in this year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, it turns the screw on the Government for a second independence referendum, and Tory MPs flap.
Option A is more apparent than real: after all, if the Prime Minister went to Scotland less often, he would scarcely go at all. The most seductive alternative is Option C. And there is an obvious alternative to send, at least at the moment: Rishi Sunak, who was found by one of those polls to have ratings “higher than Keir Starmer, Gordon Brown, Alex Ferguson, and even the Queen”.
The Chancellor’s popularity is set to take a hit if there are major tax rises in the Budget. But the pervasive sense that this former Winchester head boy projects of being untarnished by the class system is clearly a plus for him in Scotland. It is unlikely to fade away altogether.
Nonetheless, marking Scotland on the map as a Johnson-free zone would be the counsel of despair, and some Tories who are closely involved in the fight for the Union reject it. “There is reason to believe that his ratings would rise if he becomes seriously and frequently engaged in the arguments,” said told ConservativeHome.
It isn’t as though there aren’t good ones to put. That there was an independence referendum as recently as 2014 is a powerful reason not to hold another one soon. But the paradox of not holding another poll is that the cases for both the Union and independence float consequence-free. And we don’t know how a referendum would concentrate minds.
We Brexiteers should acknowledge at once that patriotism is patriotism – and that, if the Scots are determined to live in an independent country, then it will ultimately be impossible (and wrong, too) to prevent them doing so. But today’s debate takes place in a vaccum, and it’s impossible to know what would happen were it not.
At any rate, the short-term solution to the question we pose looks like a combination of B) and C). Let Sunak go often to Scotland, by all means: the Treasury cycle runs on one big event a year, that spring Budget, and one would have thought he has opportunities. “We need to deploy people to where they will be most effective,” one source said.
“Michael Gove doesn’t go down well everywhere, but he’s a local boy made good in Aberdeenshire. A calm presence like Oliver Dowden might go down well in Edinburgh.” Obviously, the Prime Minister’s time will be even more pressed than the Chancellor’s, particularly until the pandemic abates.
But once he gets into campaigning mode – which would mean cutting out such unforced errors as criticising devolution head-on – the results can be awesome, as the 2016 referendum campaign and the 2019 election campaign proved. And he was in the right tactical territory this week.
If Scottish voters are determined to back Nicola Sturgeon ensuring that a smaller proportion of Scots than English are vaccinated, then there will be nothing anyone can do to stop them. After all, there is no evidence that her government has handled the pandemic any better than Johnson’s, but her ratings in Scotland have gone in the opposite direction to his.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s case – that Scots gain from the UK vaccine success; that the army is integral to roll-out; that we all win from working together – must surely have some traction if repeated often enough. The healthcare argument is essentially a variation on the material one: that it makes no sense for Scots, who export 60 per cent of their goods to the rest of the Union, to put up a border.
What the Union needs most is a cultural case that will walk in step with that material one. Project Fear not enough; we need Project Love – at least, if the United Kingdom is to flourish in the future as it has done in the past. Which means that it must look to that future, projecting the Union as a force for good. The Ruth Davidson leadership in Scotland has come closest to communicating that modern flavour.
Tim Montgomerie once ran a project called The Good Right. How about hearing it for The Good Union – member of the G7 and of the UN Security Council; one of the biggest contributors to NATO and – even after any cut from 0.7 per cent – one of the biggest aid donors internationally; a Joe Biden partner on climate change; one of the world’s most successful multi-cultural unions? It’s a late shot as much as a first shot, but Conservatives ought to be thinking long-term, strategically as well as tactically.