Boris Johnson asks Nicola Sturgeon to a 'save the Union' summit

·7-min read
FASLANE, SCOTLAND - JULY 29: Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomes Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Bute House on July 29, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The PM is due to announce £300m of funding to help communities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ( (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
FASLANE, SCOTLAND - JULY 29: Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomes Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Bute House on July 29, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The PM is due to announce £300m of funding to help communities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ( (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Boris Johnson has sought to capitalise on Nicola Sturgeon's failure to win an outright majority by inviting her to a summit to save the union.

The Prime Minister wrote to the Scottish First Minister, as well as Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, saying they need to show "spirit of unity and cooperation" and concentrate on repairing the economy.

Ms Sturgeon immediately called for another independence referendum claiming it was "the will of the country", despite failing to win a clear majority for the SNP.

In a dramatic day in British politics:

  • Angela Rayner was sacked as chairman of the Labour Party, as leader Sir Keir Starmer began a major reshuffle of his top team after the disastrous Hartlepool by-election

  • Sadiq Khan looked set to take London’s City Hall for a second time, as the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey admitted defeat despite a better-than-expected performance

  • Conservatives had another good day in the local elections in England, winning 283 council seats while Labour lost 229 seats

  • Former Labour Cabinet minister Andy Burnham said “I’m here” if Labour needs him to take over as leader after winning a landslide victory to retain his position as Mayor of Greater Manchester

  • Conservative Andy Street easily retained his position as mayor of the West Midlands, beating Labour's Liam Byrne by 314,669 votes to 267,262

  • Mr Drakeford was returned to power in Wales as the Conservatives and Labour recorded their best ever results in a Welsh election, while nationalists in the country suffered a crushing blow

Analysis showed the three Unionist parties in Scotland together won more than 50 per cent of the constituency vote.

The SNP won 64 seats, up one from the last election, while the Tories remained level on 31. Labour dropped two to 22 seats, the Greens increased two to eight and the Liberal Democrats fell one seat to four. Alex Salmond's Alba Party failed to win a seat.

In his letter Mr Johnson – who made clear in an interview with The Telegraph that he would refuse to allow a second referendum – did not address the demands made by Ms Sturgeon for a second referendum.

Instead he offered to treat Scottish patients in English hospitals and teach Scottish children in English schools as part of a UK-wide approach to supporting the Covid-19 recovery.

Mr Johnson said: “While the UK’s broad shoulders have supported jobs and businesses the length of the country, we know that economic recovery will be a serious shared responsibility because the pandemic’s damage runs deep.

“Covid-19 has also posed significant challenges for our public services, from hours of lost school learning, to backlogs in the NHS and courts. Overcoming them will require us to show the same spirit of unity and cooperation that marked our fight against the pandemic.”

Mr Johnson said he has asked Ms Sturgeon, Mr Drakeford as well as Northern Ireland joint first ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill to the summit.

Mr Johnson continued: “To that end, and reflecting your commitment to focus on recovery, I would like to invite you to join me, UK Government colleagues and others at a summit meeting to discuss our shared challenges and how we can work together in the coming months and years to overcome them.”

He added: “We will all have our own perspectives and ideas, and we will not always agree, but I am confident that by learning from each other we will be able to build back better, in the interests of the people we serve.” Regional and city mayors are also likely to be invited to the summit which will be held “within weeks”, Number 10 said.

The meeting of minds is intended to ensure that the “ultimate focus of the entirety of the UK is what really matters to people. But it will be seen as a bid by Mr Johnson to stress the importance of the UK to all of the devolved nations, to counter the pressure from separatist movements to break away.

The idea is to “bind” the administrations and mayors into a UK-wide process to aid a swift economic recovery.

One source said: “The scale of the problem is big. We have to level with people: it will take several years to get back to what is normal. We must work together to deliver on it.”

The source said that the SNP’s demand for a second referendum in Scotland was “their problem, not ours. Our position is quite clear, namely we are not having one. The letter is about the Covid recovery is the only thing that matters.”

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister who is steering Union policy, will be on the TV interview round on Sunday morning.

Ms Sturgeon's failure to achieve an outright SNP majority greatly lifted the pressure on the Prime Minister. In her victory speech Ms Sturgeon insisted there was a cast-iron mandate for Mr Johnson to give her the powers for another separation vote by the end of 2023, when Scotland is still recovering from the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon declared herself “thrilled” with the result, saying the SNP had "emphatically" won the contest. The SNP won the most votes and highest share recorded in Holyrood election history, she said.

She said there was "simply no democratic justification" for refusing a referendum, despite constitutional affairs being reserved to Westminster, and argued this would backfire by driving up support for separation.

Referring to her referendum pledge, she concluded: "All of that is what I promised and all of that is what I intend to deliver." She plans to press ahead with her own vote if the Prime Minister refuses to grant her the powers and challenge him to block it in the Supreme Court.

Ms Sturgeon’s failure to win a clear majority meant that she failed to repeat the feat her predecessor Alex Salmond achieved in 2011, when he won an outright majority paving the way for the 2014 independence referendum, for a second time.

In a boost for Mr Johnson and Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, the Conservatives achieved the same total of 31 seats they got under Ruth Davidson in 2016.

While several polls suggested that the SNP could win a majority, pro-UK voters north of the Border united in several key marginals to narrowly hold off the nationalists.

Mr Ross said people were "watching in disbelief" Ms Sturgeon's demand after she reassured them only a few days ago in a TV debate that their votes would not be used to endorse a second independence referendum.

Any 'wildcat' referendum organised by Ms Sturgeon without the UK Government's authority faces a boycott by Unionist voters, rendering the result meaningless.

Mr Ross said: "People are looking for their MSPs, both within this region and across Scotland, to work together, to show the same unity that people across this country have shown in coming through the worst of this pandemic so far and looking towards our recovery as a country."

Labour suffered its worst ever result in the Holyrood election, declining by three seats to 21, despite the popularity of new leader Anas Sarwar. The Liberal Democrats dropped one seat to four. Mr Salmond's new Alba Party failed to pick up a seat, even in his native north east, in a major humiliation for the former First Minister.

Scottish businesses reacted with relief that the election result makes a second referendum in the immediate short term less likely.

Scottish Business UK Chairman Robert Kilgour said:“Voters have given the SNP a clear message that they must set aside any plans for a referendum and focus on recovering from the pandemic - saving lives and livelihoods, ensuring jobs are saved and that businesses survive.

"The Scottish Government must now work constructively with Westminster to keep that promise. A divisive and distracting referendum during this crisis would be a betrayal of the Scottish people and the business community in particular, which they will not be forgiven for.”