After a reshuffle of near-unprecedented scale and brutality, one small but significant change made by Boris Johnson to the machinery of government has gone almost entirely unnoticed: his decision to beef up the ministerial teams of the Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices.
Under Theresa May, her Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, had only one junior minister in the Lords at his disposal – shared with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, who also had her own junior minister in the Commons. Their successors, Alister Jack and Julian Smith, however, now have two junior ministers apiece: Robin Walker, formerly Brexit Minister, will work across both departments. Colin Clark, the first Scottish MP to endorse Johnson, joins him at the Scotland Office, while Nick Hurd, the former Policing Minister, moves to the NIO.
The appointment of Walker, who is MP for the English constituency of Worcester, left some Scottish Tories nursing what one of their number, Bill Grant, described as a “wee bit of disappointment” – of the 12 Scottish Tories first elected in 2017, there were several plausible candidates for promotion to ministerial office, not least Andrew Bowie, May’s parliamentary private secretary. But in the end only Jack was given the nod. Yet Davidson’s MPs not necessarily unhappy with the choice of Walker, or the decision to deploy him across both the Scottish and Northern Irish briefs.
Why? The move is, in the words of one alumnus of the NIO, a sign that the Johnson administration means “serious business” on Brexit and the union. Appointing an English MP might seem counterintuitive as far as that mission is concerned, particularly when it comes to managing Johnson’s already diabolical reputation in Scotland. But Walker – the longest serving Brexit Minister before his move – knows the brief and the politicians, having led on devolution issues at Dexeu. That move, and with it the reduction in the number of ministers at the nominal department for Brexit from five to three, tells us much about the government’s priorities and was received positively by MPs with skin in the game. But it also gave those same MPs cause for concern.
As much as they believed Walker’s move was ultimately a good thing, the manner of its announcement left them frustrated. Rather than draw special attention to Walker’s cross-UK role, or unveil Colin Clark as a minister at the same time, Downing Street left it a day. By that point the disobliging headlines about Johnson appointing an Englishman as a part-time minister for Scotland had already appeared, and the only signpost for the government’s constitutional agenda was Johnson’s semi-ironic new title of Minister for the Union. “The optics are terrible,” one MP complained on Friday night. “Now when a Scot is appointed, it’ll look like it only happened because we moaned about it. This is the sort of uber basic stuff it’s worrying they didn’t get right.”
And that speaks to Johnson’s biggest problem when it comes to the Union: winning the air war. Its seriousness on the issue will be politically worthless unless ministers can communicate it, which they have so far failed to do. Whether that is possible with a leader quite as toxic to Remainers as Johnson is another question entirely.