Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are apparently set to hold private talks to plan a “big push” for the Union ahead of this year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament.
The stakes are high. Another victory for the Scottish National Party — with or without the support of their fellow separatists, the Greens — would see the Prime Minister come under pressure to grant Nicola Sturgeon a re-run of the 2014 independence referendum.
Yet there seems to be tension at the heart of the Government’s defence of the United Kingdom. Despite placing Gove formally in charge of pro-UK work at Westminster, Johnson seems to have more than once clashed with him over constitutional strategy.
In the recent clash with the House of Lords over what is now the UK Internal Market Act, for example, Whitehall sources tell me that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (or ‘CDL’) wanted to make much more substantial concessions to the devocrats’ demands than the Government ended up agreeing to.
This reinforced earlier reports that Gove was prepared to abandon the vital provisions of the UKIM Act which empower London to defend the integrity of the British internal market. He is also thought to be linked to those who produced the controversial ‘Hanbury memo’ which advised granting a new referendum if the SNP win at Holyrood, directly contradicting the Prime Minister’s stated policy of refusing one.
All of this has fuelled concerns about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality amongst elements of the Government’s Union team — and means that a decisive meeting on the subject between the two men could be hugely significant.
Unionists must hope that Johnson, whose instincts on these matters at least seem better (if less elegantly expressed) prevails. His policy of refusing a second plebiscite is not only well-justified but, as Scottish commentators have pointed out, eminently sustainable.
Kicking it into the long grass would not only give the Government more time to develop and implement the sort of cultural and social policies will be essential to rebuilding the shared British identity which is essential to the UK’s survival, but it will also hugely increase the pressure on Sturgeon and her allies in the SNP leadership.
Without the prospect of an imminent vote to hold her warring clan together, the deep divisions within the party (not least over independence strategy) will have space to break out into open warfare. Even if the latest allegations from Alex Salmond don’t bring the First Minister down, her political mortality has never been more apparent and she is an irreplaceable asset to the separatist cause.
Finally, a longer timeline would spare pro-Union campaigners of the need to try and buy off today’s swing voters with panicky constitutional bribes of the sort offered by Sir Keir Starmer, whose recent speech combined a remarkably firm opposition to another referendum with trite posturing against ‘Westminster’ and promises of yet more powers to Edinburgh.
Johnson must grasp that no positive case for the Union can be made that denies a pro-active role for its central institutions, and no lasting victory bought through appeasing the separatists. Our classicist Prime Minister should look at where ‘more powers’ tactics have got us so far and recall his Pyrrhus of Epirus: “One more such victory, and we are undone.”