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7 July 2022

Boris Johnson’s departure will be a headache for the SNP

Johnson’s resignation as Tory leader removes one of the strongest arguments for Scottish independence.

By Chris Deerin

There was something in Boris Johnson’s blunt refusal for so long to accept a lost cause that might just, at the edges, have chimed with SNP leaders. It takes a particular mindset to KBO when all is against you and the future is bleak, and that mindset is, after all, something Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have shared.

The comparison barely lasts further examination – Johnson was driven solely by his own ego, while lifelong independence campaigners are driven by a cause bigger than themselves. But still, the decades in the electoral doldrums that preceded the current SNP dominance required steely belligerence and iron hides in the face of what was at times public derision and a distinct lack of electoral promise. Like Johnson, the Nats were canny players for time – patient, unstinting, hoping that something would turn up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s obviously nuts.

There are several consequences of Johnson’s resignation as Tory leader for Scotland and its devolved government. First, and most obviously, it removes a one-man standing argument for independence. Johnson and his lack of moral core were precision-tooled to irritate Scots. Now much will depend on the ideological and psychological make-up of his successor, and the choices they make not just in relation to Scotland but to Europe, defence and foreign policy, and the economy. Like everyone else, Scots want a Westminster government that does the big things at least tolerably well.

In recent months there have been signs that the UK government is getting Scotland right at last, adopting a tone of conciliation even when rejecting Sturgeon’s demand for a new referendum. The muscular unionism that led to boasts of big infrastructure projects with Union flags plastered across them has been quietly shelved in favour of a more constructive relationship. It will never be enough for the SNP, of course, but it is by far the best option open to a Tory administration at Westminster.

For that reason, Scottish unionists will likely hope for a diplomat along the lines of Jeremy Hunt rather than, say, self-proclaimed “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker. The Tory party will have its own priorities, but any new PM generally gets a fair wind from the electorate for a while at least, and most Scots will extend the same courtesy.

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[See also: Nicola Sturgeon’s Diary: Why Westminster must let Scotland choose its destiny]

Second, the resignation has the potential to disrupt Sturgeon’s carefully calculated IndyRef2 schedule. The next prime minister is unlikely to take a different position to Johnson on allowing a referendum, but they may want to call a general election within the next year, before Sturgeon’s planned date of 19 October 2023. Would the First Minister go into that election still insisting it is a “de facto” referendum, even before there has been the opportunity for a Supreme Court ruling? Is her party even ready – is the nation? Few swing voters would thank her for attempting to rush them into such a big decision. And if she doesn’t, what does that do for her reputation?

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Further, if that election delivered a Labour government, it would change the odds of a Yes vote considerably. It is the SNP’s worst nightmare.

Sturgeon was quick out the blocks yesterday in an attempt to stamp her narrative on events. There would be relief at Johnson’s departure, she tweeted, but there was also a quick and predictable shift in the line. “The problems run much deeper than one individual,” she wrote. “For Scotland the democratic deficit inherent in Westminster government doesn’t get fixed with a change of PM. None of the alternative Tory PMs would ever be elected in Scotland.” Independence was “the real and permanent alternative to Westminster” and it was hard to see “what real difference… Labour offers”.

So, in a sense, everything has changed but nothing has changed. The constitutional scrap rolls on, with its arguments slightly tweaked and new faces in the crosshairs. 

The unremitting farce of the past few days has shocked Scots, as it has their fellow Britons. It has painted British politics in a wholly unflattering light, and pointed up all manner of problems with the way Westminster goes about its business. It remains to be seen whether it has boosted the appetite for separation, or whether Johnson’s departure somewhat lances the boil.

The SNP still has its own problems – the scandal around its former chief whip Patrick Grady and the party’s treatment of his victim has not gone away. The reputation of its Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has taken a huge hit in recent weeks, and questions continue to be asked about the vice-like grip on the party machinery held by Sturgeon and her husband, the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell.

Like Johnson, the nationalists tend to see every crisis as an opportunity, and every blockage as merely temporary, and will carry on regardless. Sturgeon has outlasted three prime ministers and will now face a fourth. One way or another, it is likely to be her last.

[See also: Can levelling up survive the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government?]