By backing Boris Johnson, Conservative MPs in England are taking a huge gamble on the Union

Gordon Brown has reiterated what many Scottish politicians are thinking: a Johnson premiership is good for the SNP and bad for British Unionism.

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The Union between England and Scotland is at risk thanks to a rising tide of nationalism on both sides of the border and the political success of Boris Johnson, warned Gordon Brown in a major speech this morning. Brown called on all politicians to stand up the rising tide of the far right and the Brexit Party.

Labour’s last prime minister used his speech to urge Johnson – who has called for the Barnett formula, which allocates money between the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, to be torn up and for Scotland’s parliamentary representation at Westminster to be further reduced – to rule out playing “the English card” at the next election. That is to say re-running the playbook that was so successful in 2015; warning about the possibility of a Labour government propped up by the SNP. Brown instead wants the future of the Union to have a bigger role in the Conservative leadership election.

In a similar vein, David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, has also warned that the rise of English nationalism is the greatest threat to the Union between Scotland and England and that the future of the Union must be the central question of the Tory race.

There’s acynical but reasonable view of these interventions. Brown wants the Conservative Party to rule out deploying a weapon that has proven to be effective at election time, and Lidington wants to steer the Tory contest away from topics on which Johnson does well and onto issues where Jeremy Hunt – who Lidington is now backing after his first and second choice candidates, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, were eliminated from the race – does better. 

There’s an important but, though, and it’s this: while Brown is the most senior figure to do so, his thinking on a Johnson premiership and the Union is hardly controversial. Ruth Davidson’s “Operation Arse” – her plan to prevent Johnson becoming Conservative leader – may have detonated at launch but the plain fact remains: every living politician to have enjoyed any form of electoral success in Scotland, be it Brown’s 2010 surge there, Nicola Sturgeon’s electoral triumphs in 2015 and 2016, or Ruth Davidson’s transformation of the Scottish Conservatives’ position, believes that a Johnson premiership is good for the SNP and bad for the forces of British Unionism. A majority of Scottish Conservative MPs are supporting another candidate, and even among those that aren’t, there are deep reservations about what a Johnson premiership means for the future of the Union.

We shouldn’t forget that it was Gordon Brown who predicted in the summer of 2014 that Labour’s involvement in the Better Together campaign was endangering the party’s own position in Scotland, and who warned publicly in March 2015 that British pro-Europeans were on a trajectory to referendum defeat. It’s not certain he is right this time and it is not certain that Davidson’s fears and Sturgeon’s hopes will be fulfilled by a Johnson government. But it is a reminder that the gamble that Conservative MPs are taking in England by backing Johnson – that losses to the Liberal Democrats will be offset by gains to the Brexit Party – has a more existential mirror in Scotland.

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.

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