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Johnson struggles to find a way to keep the UK together

This is the second part of an FT series asking whether the UK is heading for break-up. Follow UK politics & policy with myFT to be alerted when new parts are published.

Boris Johnson knows all about how to break up political unions: he masterminded the UK’s departure from the EU.

But soon the Brexit prime minister could be faced with a career-defining battle to hold the United Kingdom together. “Not many prime ministers survive the break-up of their own country,” said one cabinet minister. 

The same identity politics that Johnson used so effectively in the 2016 Brexit referendum is now fuelling calls for Scottish independence: a desire for self-determination, a distrust of a distant ruling elite, and a clamour for “control”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National party, wants to cast aside the 314-year union between her country and England through a referendum on independence — in a move that could encourage further break-up of the four-nation UK.

Johnson has struggled to work out how to counter Sturgeon, although the self-styled “minister for the union” has belatedly put into effect a plan that involves his government bypassing the Scottish parliament to spend more money directly in Scotland.

Boris Johnson speaking to Scottish Conservatives during the 2019 general election campaign © Dan Kitwood/Pool/Getty

It also concentrates on stressing the benefits of UK coronavirus programmes, including the furlough scheme and Covid-19 vaccines, ramming home the idea that Scots have “two governments”.

“Initially, nobody in Number 10 saw Covid as an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of the union,” said one senior Scottish Conservative. “But if you’re up against one of the leading politicians in the UK, you have to play your best game — you have to have a plan.”

The plan did not come easily. This year Johnson has lost two heads of his Downing Street “union unit” — which was meant to focus on policies to strengthen the UK — before deciding to sideline it.

Ministers cling to the hope that Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as first minister and leader of the SNP, will derail the Scottish independence movement. Salmond, who is embroiled in a bitter feud with Sturgeon, has set up a new party called Alba to fight the elections to the Edinburgh parliament on May 6.

“It should be called the Albatross party,” said one Tory strategist. But what if Salmond’s intervention fails to dent Sturgeon’s popularity or her push for independence?

Preserving the integrity of the UK was not uppermost in the thoughts of most Conservatives campaigning for Brexit in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum. There were plenty of warnings that leaving the EU could put strains on the UK, and Scotland voted by 62 per cent to 38 per cent for Remain. London also voted strongly for Remain.

“Increasingly, as the campaign went along, it was obvious Scotland and London were the big outliers,” said one member of the Vote Leave team led by Johnson during the Brexit referendum. “But there wasn’t much we could do about that. We were fighting to win an EU referendum. The Scottish question had been settled in the independence referendum in 2014.”

Column chart of Votes in 2016 referendum (million) showing England voted for Brexit, but Scotland did not

For some Scots, Brexit is a preoccupation of English nationalists, personified by the Oxford university-educated Johnson. A YouGov opinion poll in 2019 found that 63 per cent of Conservative party members wanted to ensure Brexit took place, even if it meant Scotland leaving the UK.

The Johnson government has long been torn over how to deal with the Sturgeon administration in Edinburgh, a product of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s devolution reforms in the late 1990s. Johnson said the project had been “a disaster north of the border” in a private meeting with Tory MPs in November.

But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the most prominent Scot in Johnson’s cabinet, is determined to be “as constructive as possible” in his work with the three devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, according to one ally.

Gove is seen as head of the “love-bombing” faction of ministers at Westminster: a group which believes that setting up constant friction between London and the devolved administrations plays into the hands of those who want to break up the UK. He wants to show devolution can work.

Others in the Johnson government have called for a more confrontational approach. Oliver Lewis, who quit as head of the Downing Street union unit in February after only two weeks in the role, was the architect of a policy in which Johnson engaged in what was seen in Edinburgh as a “power grab” — an attempt to reinsert the UK government directly into the affairs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK internal market act — promoted by Lewis — allows the British government to directly finance more projects in Scotland, including by working with local councils. In the past, such funds would have been disbursed through Edinburgh.

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon
Boris Johnson and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon holding talks in Scotland in 2019 © Duncan McGlynn/Pool/AP

Up to £800m from a UK government “levelling up” fund will bypass the devolved administrations and go straight to local authorities to pay for town centre regeneration, plus transport and cultural projects — and the investments will be badged with the union flag.

But Jess Sargeant, researcher at the Institute for Government, a think-tank, said this approach of bypassing the Edinburgh parliament was potentially problematic, adding: “If you look like you’re undermining devolution, those people who are pro-devolution, pro-union, might be worried about how this might develop.”

Alister Jack, Scotland secretary in Johnson’s cabinet, is unapologetic. “Scotland has two governments,” he said recently, adding direct funding of local councils was “real devolution”.

The coronavirus crisis has also given Johnson a chance to highlight the contribution of his government to daily lives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: notably the job retention scheme that has paid much of the wages of furloughed workers, and the roll out of Covid-19 vaccines.

This month Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, opened a new front in the fight to safeguard the UK, ordering all British government buildings to fly the union flag every day. The flag of the NHS — another potent symbol of the UK — would also be allowed to be flown, he said.

But if Johnson’s efforts to safeguard the UK fail and Scotland re-elects an SNP-led parliament on May 6, Johnson will have to move to “plan B”.

He has said repeatedly that he is opposed to another independence referendum, but as former Conservative prime minister John Major wrote in the Financial Times last month, continually saying “no” would stoke grievances and could increase the risk of UK break-up.

Major wants Johnson to consider constitutional reforms to bind Scotland into the UK — Gove is engaged in some early thinking in this area — and the former prime minister also believes Scots should be presented with a report setting out the full economic and foreign policy facts of independence.

So far that idea is being resisted in Downing Street. “All that does is help the nationalists create an impression that a referendum is somehow inevitable,” said one senior Scottish Tory.

But a UK government costing of Scottish independence is not ruled out.

Brexiters in the Conservative party know that one reason they won the EU referendum was precisely because the Remain campaign failed to establish in the public mind what the UK leaving the EU might mean in practice and how much it could cost. “It’s important for us to learn the lessons of the Remain campaign,” said one ally of the prime minister.

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