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Boris Johnson is fighting on many fronts – but it’s the Scotland Question that could finish him

Why the biggest challenge to Johnson’s administration is the Scottish parliament election, as the SNP aims to secure a mandate for a second independence referendum. 

By Stephen Bush

What’s the government’s biggest challenge? That is the question that one Conservative MP put to me the other day. I’ll be honest: it took a few goes to get the right answer.

Is it ending the recession? The government’s desire to revive the economy ahead of defeating Covid-19 is driven in large part by how bad the economic picture is, as well as pressure from the Tory back benches. In April, Boris Johnson signed up to five tests to end the lockdown. They couldn’t be met in the short term without either a new advance against the disease, such as a vaccine or a palliative treatment, or the development of an extensive and far-reaching system to test, trace and isolate new cases. Now the government is busily claiming that the tests have been met – in spite of protests to the contrary from scientists and public health officials. 

The change of priorities is symbolised by a new arrival in the inner cabinet: Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, now attends their meetings. The Prime Minister was reluctant to countenance the initial, draconian lockdown and prefers to let underlings announce further restrictions – some believe the desire to deliver good news is why the lockdown is now being eased. Others believe that Johnson has only just grasped the extent of the economic damage to the country.

The biggest risk in relaxing restrictions is that there will be a second spike in infections, which in turn would cause another lockdown, whether directed from above or triggered from below, as people voluntarily reduce their social contacts. A secondary danger is that public nervousness about the speed of the unlocking will mean there is no swift return to normal economic activity. Most Conservative MPs are against the lockdown, whether on grounds of civil liberties or economic efficiency. But some also fear that a bungled easing of measures will cause a loss of trust between the party and the electorate that will take a generation to recover. 

So what is the biggest challenge, the MP asked, if it isn’t ending the recession, or even defeating Covid-19?

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What about negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU? Securing a good trade deal with the bloc is high on the list of priorities. The problem is that no one can quite agree on what “good” means. For the British government, a good deal maximises the UK’s regulatory autonomy. For business, a good trade deal facilitates the highest – and easiest – level of trade with the EU27. For the EU, it’s one that keeps the UK within its regulatory orbit. 

The major difference between the Canada-style trade deal the government is seeking and leaving without a deal (rebranded as “Australia-style” in order to avoid the negative associations of “no deal”) is that the economic disruption of a Canada-style agreement will be experienced slowly over time while the disruption of a no deal will happen overnight. Some ministers think that the benefit of a sharp shock is that the pain can be dispensed with long before the next general election. 

But what complicates the matter is that the UK will already be suffering heavy economic disruption because of the pandemic. This may make the costs of Brexit easier to hide, but could also make them impossible to bear. Brexiteers fear that without Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s desire for a quiet life may lead to a softening of the UK’s Brexit position. This is one reason some MPs with no real “in” to Downing Street, such as Andrew Bridgen, were so quick to defend the PM’s embattled aide.

Yet the looming obstacle wasn’t Brexit, either. Was it securing a fifth term in power and with it an unprecedented 20 years in office for the Conservatives? Not a bit of it, said the MP. Johnson’s approval ratings continue to tumble. But in the mind of this MP at least, Keir Starmer has yet to establish Labour as a plausible alternative or, more importantly, to destroy Johnson or his likely successors. A political party that has regenerated itself in office before has time to do so again before 2024.

So what’s the problem? The biggest challenge to Johnson’s administration does concern an election, and it’s not the one in four years. It is the election in 11 months to the Scottish parliament, in which the SNP is aiming for a fourth term in power and a mandate for a second independence referendum. Although No 10’s official position is that the Prime Minister would simply refuse to grant the Scottish government the right to hold another vote, most believe that position is contingent on public opinion north of the border. 

“We can reject a referendum as long as holding another one remains a priority only for the SNP’s conference floor,” one minister said to me recently. “Once it becomes an issue of fairness for the average Scottish voter, we’re in trouble.” 

The Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland doesn’t concern most MPs, but the Union between England and Scotland certainly does: either way, the independence question has the potential to diminish the energy and focus of the government for the majority of its term. 

Polls in Scotland show that a vote would be very close. And the contest to win the next referendum would mean mothballing the government’s entire agenda, in order to avoid any controversy that might tip the balance towards the nationalists. The sensible solution, many believe, is for the government to take a more cautious approach until next May and be bolder later. Instead, it is pushing ahead with easing lockdown, pursuing Brexit and paying little attention to its various opponents. On reflection, perhaps the real answer to the MP’s question is that the government’s biggest challenge is its own worst instincts. 

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This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe