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10 February 2021

While Boris Johnson remains in charge, the Scottish independence movement is unstoppable

The biggest political test facing Johnson’s government is to keep the UK together. It is currently failing.

By Stephen Bush

One of the first things that Boris Johnson’s new chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, did upon entering Downing Street at the start of January was to rearrange the furniture. He took the desk nearest the Prime Minister’s, displacing the 71-year-old Eddie Lister, a Johnson veteran from his time in City Hall and the previous chief of staff. Rosenfield did so not because he has a particular dislike for septuagenarians, but because in politics as in economics, geography matters: physical proximity to the Prime Minister is an essential part of being an effective chief of staff. (Added to that, Rosenfield’s perch means he can see who is going in and out of the Prime Minister’s office.)

But in politics, physical proximity must also be matched by intellectual proximity: if you do not command the support of a prime minister, it doesn’t really matter how close your desk is to theirs. That’s one explanation for the sudden sacking of Luke Graham, the head of Johnson’s “Union unit” – the Downing Street group tasked with keeping the United Kingdom together. Graham never gained the trust of the Prime Minister or influenced Johnson’s thinking, and so his physical presence in Downing Street was only ever going to be short term. (This might also have long-term implications for Rosenfield, who is a widely respected former civil servant but whose politics are not believed to align with Johnson’s.)

[See also: Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Why I was sacked, coming out as gay in the Aids pandemic, and turmoil in the SNP]

Another explanation for Graham’s sacking is that it was not due to his distance from the Prime Minister but his closeness to another cabinet minister, Michael Gove. Graham – who, until he lost his seat in the 2019 election, was the MP for Ochil and South Perthshire – supported Gove’s bid for the party leadership, as did most of the party’s Scottish MPs. Some of the Prime Minister’s allies fear that concern for the Union has become a respectable way of talking down their boss. Anyone who can read a poll or who spends any time in Scotland rapidly reaches the same conclusion: the SNP’s biggest asset in its quest to break up the Union is Johnson. The Prime Minister doesn’t do detail, is not Scottish and lacks a particular commitment to ideological projects. Who better, mischievous observers ask, to replace him than a cabinet minister who has a forensic eye, is Scottish and is intellectually omnivorous and ideologically committed?

Either way, it added to Graham’s problems that Alister Jack, one of the few Scottish Conservatives to back Johnson in 2019 and now the Secretary of State for Scotland, is widely believed not to rate him either.

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Optimistic members of the SNP’s parliamentary group at Westminster think Graham’s sacking reflects a different truth. They believe that having Graham in place was a tactic in Downing Street’s plan to kill Scottish independence with kindness – but now the strategy is to fight and defeat it electorally in another referendum campaign. This explains the promotion of Oliver Lewis, one of the few survivors of the purge of the Vote Leave gang, to head the Union unit. Those in Johnson’s circle, however, believe that he will never risk letting “the SNP do to him what he did to David Cameron”, as one ally puts it: he won’t allow his premiership to be derailed by referendum defeat.

Whichever theory is correct, it is only part of a banal truth, which is that Downing Street’s Union unit has shown no sign of arresting the rise in support for Scottish independence or turning the tide against the SNP. It’s true that the SNP’s internal divisions are becoming sharper and more bitter. It is not unusual for SNP MPs to point out that the party contains a fairly wide set of ideological positions, but it is unusual for those positions to be the subject of public rows between MPs. However, it is more significant that those divisions have yet to have any impact on the SNP’s popularity or its prospects of winning a majority at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May.

[See also: Is the SNP about to implode?]

The biggest political test facing Johnson’s government is to keep the country together. It is a challenge at which it is currently failing.

The likely solution will be to centralise ever greater power at Westminster: moves to unpick much of the Conservatives’ 2012 Health and Social Care Act and to give more decision-making authority to the health secretary will be the beginning, not the end, of Johnson’s centralisation programme. The government’s new internal market bill will allow Downing Street to spend more – and more freely – in Scotland and Wales, which some hope will provide physical proof of the value of the Union in the two nations.

There are two problems with that approach. The first is that centrally administered states tend to struggle: it is no coincidence that the UK, one of the most centralised states in western Europe, also has some of the greatest regional inequalities. But the second, and more profound, is that the crisis in the Union between Scotland and England has nothing to do with how the British government behaves in Scotland and everything to do with its conduct in England. Voting for Scottish independence is an easier route away from a Conservative government, which the average Scottish voter neither likes nor respects, than the distant prospect of Conservative defeat in England.

The hard truth for Johnson is that while he remains in charge at Westminster it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to see how the SNP’s forward march can be halted, or support for independence can be reduced. No number of new faces in Downing Street or new approaches to governing the Union can fix the problem. Only a change at the top, whether that is the switch from Johnson to Gove, or the greater change from a Conservative government to a Labour one, has any hope of doing that. 

[See also: Scottish independence poll tracker: will Scotland vote to leave the UK?]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair