“Do nothing”. That’s how No10 intends to see off Nicola Sturgeon’s bid to force a second Scottish independence referendum, one Cabinet minister tells me. Seriously? That’s the master plan to save the 314-year union of our nations? It really is, but there’s more cunning to it than it seems. The whole country (Northern Ireland aside) votes on something tomorrow, from councillors to regional governments. Sadiq Khan will romp home for a second term as London Mayor, against a Tory candidate so embarrassingly lightweight that Boris Johnson doesn’t dare be seen with him.
Instead, the Red Wall contests across the West Midlands and the North-East that could doom Keir Starmer will be the most electric media story. I write this on a train to Hartlepool. But it will be what happens in Scotland that will have the most substantial ramifications in the months ahead. The SNP will gain a new majority of the 129 MSPs up for grabs in Holyrood, either outright or with the help of the Greens, to claim a mandate for another indyref. That’s where doing nothing comes in. Nicola Sturgeon, pictured, and the Westminster Government have something in common. Both will suffer from what the Cabinet minister calls “First Move Disadvantage”.
Scottish voters, like the rest of us, are a contradictory bunch. They don’t want that most English of Englishmen Boris Johnson to block the will of the people to have their say. But they also don’t want Sturgeon to hold a referendum without the UK Government’s permission, with all the chaos that would ensue.
So Johnson’s Cabinet is content to wait for now, and keep repeating the mantra “now’s not the time”, for whatever fluctuating good reason that occurs to them. It will work for a few years, but not forever. Soon the Cabinet will emerge as the obvious roadblock it’s pretending not to be. That’s why there’s also a dawning realisation among ministers that another line of attack is needed, and that it can come from the most unlikely of sources — the European Union.
There is a grand deal to be done with Brussels to keep Scotland in the union. European leaders are no fans of separatism. From Catalonia to Flanders and Transylvania to the Basques, most have separatist movements of their own they are keen to quash. As they did during the 2014 independence campaign, senior EU figures have quietly suggested to our ministers that they are prepared to be very helpful on an independent Scotland’s ambitions to rejoin the EU: a rejection that would kill Sturgeon’s project dead.
But the EU has a price: an agreement to heal the festering sore that is the Northern Ireland Protocol once and for all. It wants the UK to align to a thinned-down book of EU standards on food and agriculture, a move that would slash the need for the lion’s share of disruptive and costly border checks on imports into the province from the British mainland in a stroke. Some ministers in Johnson’s Cabinet also want closer alignment on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (as they’re technically known), and have pressed Brexit negotiator Lord Frost on it. And I understand this is now happening.
Frost and his opposite number in the EU, Commission vice president Maroš ŠefÄoviÄ, are inching towards agreeing a set of common standards on agri-food. It won’t be called alignment (No10 prefers the terms “equivalence”). It may even involve the option to diverge if the UK feels it must, to avoid the incandescent rage of hardline Brexiteers who insist the UK must never again be beholden to Brussels on anything. But it amounts to the same thing.
There is also a growing acceptance in No10 that getting one difficult part of the union to work would be of significant advantage for the coming battle for Scottish hearts and minds. Let Scotland go, some Londoners might say, and we’ll save the £2,000-a-head cash subsidy that largely South-East taxpayers send to Scotland annually. It’s one argument. But the flip side is a smaller United Kingdom, our armed forces salami sliced up, the almost certain loss of our place on the UN’s Security Council, and interminable wrangling between Edinburgh and London that will make Brexit look like a Sunday picnic. Plus without Scotland, no concoction of different parties will be able to build a majority of MPs to defeat Johnson at a general election until he is in his eighties. From any perspective, doing nothing doesn’t work. Getting Brexit done properly might.
Boris ally fills No10 power vacuum — but for how long?
The disappearance from No10 of key figures recently — from long-serving Chief of Staff Eddie Lister to Comms Director James Slack — left a power vacuum.
Swift to fill it, disgruntled insiders say, has been the No10 policy unit and its boss, Munira Mirza, below. One of Boris Johnson’s few remaining long-serving allies, Mirza and her team are not only dictating ever stronger terms on ministries, officials also complain the unit also now tries to assume control of day-to-day fire fighting.
“They need to wind their necks in,” as one minister puts it.
This column last week reported on the growing frustration among Tory MPs that the PM’s flagship election pledge, levelling up, is still without any direction or definition. As an answer to their cries, the well-respected backbench Tory MP and thinker Neil O’Brien was appointed by Johnson this week to be his levelling up adviser and give the aspiration some policies. Yet O’Brien reports directly to the PM, and will not sit anywhere near Mirza’s empire, despite her remit for policy. A classic case of divide and rule. Just how Boris likes to run his top team.
Polite Whitty needs to be fast on his feet
It was a true pleasure to see Chris Whitty mobbed by a stream of passers-by as he popped out on his lunch break last Thursday.
The Chief Medical Officer walked at lightning pace down Strutton Ground, a cobbled street of food stalls off Victoria Street, in the forlorn hope he might be able to get to his destination unimpeded. Yet he was still polite enough to meticulously thank every well-wisher for their gratitude to him, before speeding on again. It turns out he was dropping off a pair of shoes that needed re-soling. That figures.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and chief political commentator on Times Radio