The break-up: is Boris about to lose Scotland?

The Holyrood elections are looming. But infighting dominates No. 10

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

At the stroke of five o’clock last Friday, the new head of No. 10’s Union unit was due to brief government aides on the robust new strategy to counter the SNP. It was urgently needed: campaigning for the Scottish parliament election starts in a few weeks and if Nicola Sturgeon wins a majority — as looks likely — she’ll demand another independence referendum. She stands a very good chance of winning. Any plan to save Britain must be put into action now.

But an hour or so before the briefing, an email went around to say it was cancelled. What’s more its author, Oliver Lewis, had resigned, just two weeks into his job as head of the unit. Explanations for his departure started flying around Westminster. Lewis is a protégé of Dominic Cummings, and his departure — some say his purging — was seen by many as part of the unfinished civil war with Boris Johnson’s former advisers. Whatever the truth, the psycho-drama sent a clear message: that the SNP may be vulnerable but the Tories are too busy feuding and briefing against each other to take advantage.

Oliver Lewis had an aggressive strategy to combat the SNP, but it wasn’t his approach that was the problem. The heart of the trouble was the arrival in No. 10 of two advisers, Henry Newman and Simone Finn. Both are allies of Michael Gove and — perhaps more importantly — close friends of Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancée.

Vote Leave allies warned of the growing influence of Symonds, while other aides fretted over the loyalties of the Gove-ites. A No. 10 spokesperson was forced to deny that the Prime Minister’s fiancée was secretly running the country via aides invited to soirées in the Downing Street flat. A briefing war soon broke out over the behaviour of Dilyn the dog, which only served to show the nation how easily distracted the government is.

The soap opera might have been funny were the situation not so serious. A focused campaign could deny Sturgeon a majority in May — and without a majority the Scottish parliament could not vote for a referendum. She is fighting off Alex Salmond in Edinburgh, who has accused her allies of conspiring to have him sent to prison. Accusations don’t get much more serious. But despite the severity of her situation, Sturgeon doesn’t appear too worried. SNP politicians were quick to weaponise the chaos in No. 10 on social media.

Part of the muddle stems from the fact that there’s no clear structure. As well as the No. 10 Union unit, there is the Cabinet Office’s Union directorate — led by Michael Gove. Gove wants to love-bomb his fellow Scots, blowing kisses from the other side of the border. Lewis had advocated a more muscular, take-no–prisoners approach to the SNP. ‘No one is sure what the Scotland strategy is,’ says a government aide. ‘I thought at last we have a clear position, but perhaps not,’ laments a minister, following Lewis’s departure.

Boris Johnson had previously seemed to be all on board with the Lewis strategy: to apply to Scotland the methods of the Vote Leave campaign, which he believes not only took him to No. 10 but delivered the Brexit deal. The new Union unit was to be modelled on Taskforce Europe, the ‘small and agile’ team of a few dozen officials who assisted the Prime Minister through the second half of Brexit negotiations. There would be about 40 people operating under a strong command in No. 10: the Scotland Office would implement decisions made centrally. If the Scottish Tories quibbled, they’d be brought into line. The flaw of unionism — feuding and split leadership — would be remedied.

The Prime Minister is also taken by the idea that Brexit has given him a new weapon to fight for the Union: the controversial Internal Market Bill, passed to give the UK government new powers to handle the Brexit transition. And powers to get more involved in Scottish affairs. For example, the Prime Minister could say that Glasgow drugs deaths are surging — so the UK government is willing to fund treatment centres or other initiatives that could be carried out by the city council. The idea is that Scottish local authorities can bid for Westminster funds to carry out work that might not be funded by Edinburgh.

The overall idea would be that Scots will soon see two powers in the land. The Scottish government would have its transport, health and education departments — but they would no longer have exclusive control over public services. The UK government would be there too, stepping in to provide extra help — or mop up after Holyrood failures. The Prime Minister is thought to be strongly supportive of this plan, seeing it as similar to the tactics the EU used to engrain itself as a government within nation states.

Several ministers favour the clarity of this approach, arguing that 14 years of power have seen the SNP unable to handle sturdy opposition. ‘Their defensive muscles have atrophied,’ says one involved in recent policy. ‘We can love Scotland but attack the Nats. They’d be discombobulated.’

Simon Case, the new civil service chief, is also thought to have backed the Lewis agenda. As a former Buckingham Palace aide, he would not enjoy telling the Queen that her kingdom has been the latest casualty of No. 10 chaos. ‘Case is like Varys from Game of Thrones,’ explains one colleague — the show has a cult following among senior Tories. In one episode, Varys is asked who he really serves. His reply: ‘I serve the realm. Someone has to.’ This is understood to be Case’s position: he is in no doubt about the threat to the realm, and the danger posed to it by feuding.

While there is general agreement on the nuts and bolts of the strategy, there is dis-agreement on tone. Aberdeen-born Michael Gove is keen on a less combative tone. ‘The idea is you catch more flies with honey than vinegar,’ says one figure involved. Project Love — as some have come to call it — would focus on the positive impact of the Union, highlighting UK successes such as the vaccination programme and furlough scheme. Internal polling has shown more support in Scotland for such schemes, and the idea of more cooperation. This idea is that it’s about ‘fighting smart’ — with a more diplomatic approach being more effective.

With Gove in conversation with Gordon Brown, among others, and said to be in ‘listening mode’, some of his colleagues worry the approach could become ‘too clever by half’. There’s talk of a review of the constitution or a look at devolution from a UK-wide perspective. Gove, for his part, is getting ready for battle and has changed his Zoom name to 1707, the year the Union was founded.

The Prime Minister’s allies and enemies alike all agree that if he loses Scotland, he loses power — and this failure will eclipse any of his successes. No one doubts his passion for the Union. He continues to see great political power in infrastructure projects, such as a proposed tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. But as one Scot Tory puts it: ‘That would not be the top of Scottish voters’ lists when it comes to a spare £20 billion.’ Especially if one of the arguments against a referendum is that it would cost £100 million.

The Scottish Conservatives are keen to ignore the No. 10 drama. Douglas Ross, the Westminster MP who now leads the Scottish party, has a weekly call with Gove and Scotland Secretary Alister Jack where they liaise on issues.

As for No. 10, many in government believe there will be no new Union unit head appointed — officially at least. But changes are afoot. I understand that the Prime Minister intends to convene a new cabinet committee devoted to developing strategy to save the Union, along the lines of the committees set up to plan for Brexit. He would chair this personally.

There is also talk of the Prime Minister moving more towards Gove’s Project Love — and away from his original, point-blank refusal to hold a referendum on the grounds that the last was ‘once in a generation’. He might create wiggle room by starting to talk about the need to avoid a ‘reckless’ referendum — a word which implies that while it’s the wrong time for a poll now, that could change in the future.

But if Sturgeon wins her majority, this could all soon be taken out of political hands and become a matter for legal minds and civil servants — who could start preparing for the eventuality regardless.

As recent events have shown, the SNP is not invincible — Salmond has undermined Sturgeon’s leadership and cracks are forming in party unity. But Sturgeon is strongest when her unionist opponents are divided. Johnson needs to lead and unite, to stop flipflopping between different approaches and making the same mistakes as his opponent.

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