Boris Johnson is facing a conundrum in Scotland. How can he pursue his Brexit agenda and keep the Scottish Conservatives on side?
Hot off the heels from his first trip to Scotland as Prime Minister, and his meeting with leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson, former Foreign Secretary and party leader William Hague has made an insightful intervention.
Writing in The Telegraph today, Hague urged the Prime Minister to take heed of Davidson’s advice. “She’s the only serving Conservative politician whose ability to transform the party’s fortunes is proven,” he wrote.
“No one in politics thinks the Tory revival in Scotland would have happened without this plain speaking, down to earth, unconventional woman who has changed profoundly the views of disaffected Scottish voters about what it means to be a conservative.”
But Johnson and Davidson have had a rocky relationship. In his cabinet reshuffle Johnson rebuffed Davidson’s advice to keep David Mundell as Scottish Secretary, instead opting to replace him with Brexiteer Alister Jack.
Their differences started well before then. Ruth Davidson has made no secret of her opposition to a no deal Brexit. She has said she is under no obligation to back a government move towards no deal – she might be leader of the Scottish Conservatives, but on that question she doesn’t have to answer to Boris.
So staunch is her opposition to no deal that she supported three different candidates other than Johnson for the Conservative leadership, aware of what his premiership could mean for Brexit. Johnson ran on a pledge of leaving the EU 31st October “deal or no deal.” And Brexit, let alone a no deal Brexit, is a hard sell for a Scottish Conservative considering the country voted to remain 62-38 in 2016.
Aware of this crucial fault line Johnson pledged this week to “hold out the hand” and “go the extra thousand miles” to get a new Brexit deal. Davidson says she will support the Prime Minister in this endeavour. But as the prospect of striking a new deal looks increasingly slim, thanks to the fundamentally irreconcilable red lines of Johnson (who won’t accept a deal with a backstop) and the EU (who won’t offer a deal without a backstop), Johnson’s pledge will likely amount to nothing.
If Johnson is to deliver on his 31st October promise, it looks like he’ll be taking the UK out of the EU without a deal (or he will at least have to try). This is compounded by his brutal cabinet reshuffle, which saw old cabinet moderates thrown out in favour of a team of ardent Brexiteers, who are happy to sanction Johnson’s no deal preparations. It is clear what direction this government is headed. If Johnson proceeds with no deal, he’s creating serious problems for himself north of the border.
Davidson will be a crucial player in the electoral fate of the Conservative Party. She increased the Scottish Conservative’s seats from just one to 13 in 2017. Although Johnson has vowed not to seek a general election before delivering Brexit, the vow looks like a bluff. If the Tories are to win that election they need to keep Scottish Tory voters, and Ruth Davidson, relatively happy.
It appears their meeting produced something of a truce, with Johnson vowing to protect the Union. But Scottish Conservatives are nervous. Some have raised concerns privately, even after his trip to Scotland, that Johnson is playing fast and loose with the sanctity of the Union. The SNP narrative is that Boris has relegated Scotland behind the need to deliver Brexit. This plays into the looming threat of a second independence referendum.
Davidson’s raison d’etre is to prevent the SNP from winning an overall majority in the Holyrood elections in 2021. If they get that majority that could mean a second, dangerous independence referendum. In other words – she is trying to hold the Union together, and sees Johnson’s likely pursuit of a no deal Brexit as fundamentally incompatible with that aim.
Johnson has tried to bolster his unionist credentials. He pledged to add “minister to the Union” to his title as Prime Minister, and announced he will set up a “Union unit” in Downing Street. But these will be portrayed as empty gestures by the SNP.
Boris is in a genuine bind, caught between his pledge to deliver Brexit come what may, and keeping Scottish Tories onside. If he fails to forge a better relationship with Davidson, and alienates Scottish Conservative voters, he risks losing vital Tory seats north of the border in a general election that could come within months.
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