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Boris Johnson is more than likely to get the keys to Number 10 in late July. He’s got the backing of enough MPs and remains the favourite of the membership. But there is a concern among Scottish Tories and die-hard Unionists that he is playing fast and loose with the sanctity of the Union. The narrative is that Boris has relegated Scotland, and the looming threat of another independence referendum, to second place behind securing Brexit – the genuine priority for many in the Conservative Party.
Boris has made his Brexit position clear – it’s leaving 31st October, “deal or no deal”, “do or die.” Questions over the feasibility of this proposition (and they are serious questions) are seemingly secondary to the immediate material consequences to Boris’s campaign – he wins support from the membership, but doubt is cast over his Unionist credentials.
Jeremy Hunt has rightly flagged that a no deal Brexit could be used by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP to petition for a second independence referendum. Despite matching Boris’s Brexit stance – that he will take the UK out of the EU “come what may” – Hunt has made sure to emphasise he will only pursue a Brexit course that protects the Union. The feasibility of this claim is, again, up for debate.
But there is a crucial difference between Hunt and Johnson’s pitches. Hunt had to match Johnson’s Brexit proposition to stand a chance with the largely leave voting membership, but his stance is softer for the simple fact that he hasn’t named a leaving date. He hasn’t bound his possible premiership by an absolute commitment to leaving on the 31st October. Boris, to bolster his Brexit credentials and expose Hunt’s weaknesses, has. This leaves him exposed to failing to deliver on his central promise, but as a greater concern to Scottish Tories, this leaves him and them exposed to a potential no deal exit.
The generally accepted view is that any move towards a no deal Brexit threatens the Union because the SNP will use it as a springboard to secure another independence referendum, via gaining a majority at the next Holyrood elections in May 2021. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories and a Hunt backer, challenged Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit message. “It’s the Union do or die” she said.
The Boris for PM Taskforce are not unaware of this niggle in his campaign. And, yesterday they made a bid to defend Boris’s Unionist credentials. Johnson announced the policy that he will set up a “Union unit” in Downing Street, and add “minister to the Union” to his job title were he to become PM. These are clearly conscious efforts to rubbish the the claims of certain Scottish Tories that Boris might consider forsaking the Union’s integrity for the sake of delivering Brexit.
But, there is an argument Boris can make that lies in his Brexit policy itself – one which positions him as the lesser threat to the Union than Hunt.
By failing to name a date of departure, leaving space for more parliamentary wrangling and MPs pursuing a second referendum to break the endless deadlock, Hunt is open to the accusation that he’s risking a second referendum on Brexit itself.
A second Brexit referendum (or the threat of a second Brexit referendum) can equally be used as leverage by the SNP to legitimise its own demand for a second independence referendum. The argument they’ll use is simple: If the result of 2016 (52-48) can be set aside, then why should the same not apply to Scotland’s 2014 referendum (55-45).
If Boris can make this tricky case to the Scottish Tories he might find himself less unpopular than the prevailing narrative suggests – not in spite of his Brexit position, but because of.
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