There's something everyone has missed about Boris Johnson's big three priorities

The government's major talking points have something in common, and it involves Scotland. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What connects criminal justice policy and the National Health Service? The first answer is that they are two of the three prongs of the government’s messaging, the third being its commitment to delivering Brexit on or before 31 October, whatever it takes. But the second, which might turn out to be pretty important, is that they are both devolved. The vast majority of criminal justice policy – including sentencing guidelines and police powers – are devolved in Scotland while a bit is also devolved in Wales. The National Health Service is devolved in both kingdoms.

Does that matter? My entirely anecdotal impression from covering by-elections, local elections, devolved elections, general elections and referendums in both countries is that it doesn’t matter in Wales. The average person’s knowledge of what is and isn’t devolved is fairly patchy. People are aware that the NHS is run by the Welsh government but seeing as the major strategic purpose of the government’s healthcare announcements is to blunt Jeremy Corbyn’s messaging in an area where Labour tends to enjoy large leads, that is mission accomplished. In any case, the third of those three prongs – a hard Brexit by any means possible – is fairly popular in Wales.

But in Scotland I think it does matter. The man in the street has a pretty good grasp on what is and isn’t devolved, partly because an integral part of the ruling government in Edinburgh’s political project is reminding people what they run and what Westminster runs, and to use that as a showcase for how much better life would be in an independent Scotland.  Added to the fact that a majority of Scottish voters opted to remain in the European Union and don’t want a no-deal Brexit and the government’s three big messages are, respectively: devolved, devolved, and toxic to the Scottish electorate.

That’s a bit of a risk – remember that the Conservatives have 13 seats in Scotland, and if they fall back in that country they are further increasing the size of the strides they have to make into Labour territory in England and Wales even before we factor in any losses to the Liberal Democrats – but it’s also an opportunity. It creates the space for the party in Scotland to fight a distinct campaign – a word which here means “a noun, a verb, and a series of reminders that Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold another independence referendum”.  

But it underlines that while the government has a healthy lead in the polls, we are still unclear as to how that will play out under first past the post – and that the downside risk for the government is large.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.