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This week promises to be a difficult one for the survival of the union, which has been in especially poor repair since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Searching questions should be being asked of the minister for the union, Boris Johnson (appointed by, er, Boris Johnson). In many ways he’s been a bigger failure as minister for the union than as prime minister. It’s personal, not party, too.
Back in 2016, in the referendum so closely associated with Johnson, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, and, in their different ways, neither have been able to fully reconcile the needs of Brexit with their own interests. This week’s local elections seem set to present a forceful reminder of that unfinished business. Like a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police, it is something the prime minister will be fully expecting, but will nonetheless give him something of a headache.
None of the conundrums raised in 2016 and formalised in the UK-EU withdrawal and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement have been fully resolved since Brexit was supposedly “done” in 2020. Indeed, the discontent surrounding them has been exacerbated by the prime minister’s boosterish promises and “cakeist” philosophy. Of the two, Northern Ireland looks to be the more combustible.
By the end of the week, and for the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland statelet’s 101-year history, a unionist party will not win a province-wide election, and a unionist politician will have no proper constitutional claim to be head of government.
Not only that, but the biggest single party in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be not even nationalist but Irish republican – the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein. Though a long time coming, it will still be a shock to the system.
Of course the nature of the Northern Ireland system is that the first minister and deputy first minister are effectively a joint premiership. If the deputy first minister quits, or doesn’t get nominated, then the executive – the government – falls. That is in stark contrast to the UK, where, if the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, decided to resign, the British government would probably just carry on.
It’s also fair to add that taking the Democratic Unionists, Ulster Unionists and Traditional Ulster Voice together, as well as some fringe groups, unionism is still a dominant force. It’s fracturing over obscure differences is its weakness, not the cause itself.
So, finishing “second” is something that that unionists don’t especially wish to embrace, even if everything else was fine. It isn’t, because of the way the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) is operating as an economic border within the UK. Rightly or wrongly, it seems clearer that without any change in the protocol, the government of Northern Ireland will lie in abeyance for a prolonged period.
As ever, the threat of instability and violence remains, and that could lead to unpredictable consequences. The protocol, which now undermines the loyalty of Loyalists and Unionists, was signed by Johnson after many months when he told the DUP that there was no way any British prime minister could or should agree to such a border down the Irish Sea. After he agreed to it, he told business people in Northern Ireland to send any troublesome paperwork to him at No 10, where it would be binned. Since then, exporters of chicken sandwiches have found it difficult to get them across the Irish Sea.
Johnson, in other words, is very much personally responsible for the NIP, a fact regularly repeated by his chief negotiator, David – now Lord – Frost, who is now an outside candidate to fight the forthcoming Tiverton and Honiton by-election, and will continue to cause trouble wherever he goes.
Despite the personal responsibility for the NIP, Johnson, typically, neither seems inclined to defend it or ditch it. Instead, he favours dither and delay, infuriating both the substantial pro- and anti-protocol elements in Northern Ireland. Friends of the union inside the Conservative Party might wonder whether he is the best man to keep Northern Ireland at peace and in the UK.
Johnson is equally unpopular in Scotland. He is, even more than most Tory politicians, an almost self-consciously English figure, surrounded by other Blimpish characters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose imperial attitudes and perceived callousness reinforces their otherness to Scots, who like to think of themselves as more generous and progressive.
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Needlessly, the prime minister tried to ban Nicola Sturgeon from the Cop26 conference in Glasgow and calls her “that bloody wee Jimmy Krankie woman”. Her disdain for him and his politics is cordially returned. Even more carelessly, Rees-Mogg turned up in the BBC Newsnight studio to call the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, a “lightweight”. Ross and his predecessor, Ruth Davidson, called on Johnson to quit over Partygate (though Ross has since relented, rather unconvincingly).
The upshot of all this is that the Conservatives look likely to suffer heavy losses in the local council elections, and be pushed into third place behind Labour for the first time in years. Although you’d not want to exaggerate matters, that in turn will embolden Sturgeon in her quest for another independence referendum, which she would like to hold next year.
Conservatives north and south of the border will need to consider if Johnson, even with the formal power to veto a referendum bid, is a net asset in the struggle to keep Scotland in its union with England. With him there it makes any eventual referendum harder to win.
A second place for Labour might also mark a small but important revival in Labour’s fortunes in Scotland – they hold only one Westminster seat – and a greater chance of a Starmer government emerging at the next general election, possibly supported by the SNP in Westminster. That, in turn, would raise new questions about where Labour stands on the referendum and the future of the union. So the Tories have a vested interest in rearing support in Scotland, and Johnson is a proven vote loser there.
As with Northern Ireland, Conservatives in Scotland and indeed across the UK will need to ask themselves how sacred the union really is to them, whether they might be happier as an English Nationalist Party and, either way, how Johnson’s leadership continues to serve their interests.