Is Boris Johnson Still Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?


In the eyes of many voters, Boris Johnson stopped being prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom as soon as the Covid pandemic began to rage last March. Instead he appears to have shrunk to the status of England’s uncertain chief executive, taking orders from technocrats and scientific advisers.

North of the border, it is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, who calls the shots. She tells Scots whether they can go to work, travel, or meet friends and relatives. Sturgeon’s crisis press conference is broadcast every day to Scotland as if she were a head of state.

Under a constitutional settlement designed 20 years ago to “kill nationalism stone dead,” health policy was devolved to the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Today nationalism is alive and kicking, which is more than can be said for the cohesion of the U.K., now routinely dubbed the Disunited Kingdom.

Brexit, it is true, was instrumental in putting Scottish independence back on the agenda. Scots voted almost two to one to remain in the European Union. (As ever, the nationalists conveniently forget that more than a third of their supporters voted to leave.) But it’s the health crisis that has brought the breakup of Britain closer. London and Edinburgh’s Covid strategies — and missteps — haven’t been dissimilar but they’ve been made to look so by the politically savvy Sturgeon. Scots have now tasted independence from London and they seem to like it.

For one thing, Johnson’s personality is a major negative for the Union. His comic caricature of an upper-class buffoon may tickle an English sense of humor — it travelled well in working-class constituencies in northern England during the general election — but it grates for the Scots, who find his style facile.

Even her enemies can’t fault Sturgeon’s crisp presentation. She cuts a dignified figure, respected for erring on the side of caution. By contrast, Johnson’s U-turns and unmerited boasts of “world beating” policies play badly. Last week, he visited Scotland to highlight the undoubted success of the U.K. vaccination program. According to local Unionists, the prime minister’s tone was all wrong. “He keeps telling us how grateful we all should be,” one veteran of the 2014 independence referendum tells me.

These communication failures matter: Recent opinion polls have shown consistent majorities for independence. So what can the U.K. government do to turn the nationalist tide?

The SNP is likely to win big against the demoralized forces of the Conservative and Labour parties in Scottish elections set for May. Sturgeon will then demand another referendum. If Johnson refuses it, she’ll challenge him in court. The radical wing of her party even threatens a Catalan-style “wildcat” referendum if it loses the case. Recent polls, however, show that an overwhelming majority of Scots wants to avoid any independence campaign before Covid-19 is suppressed. The Scottish Tory leader says Unionists should boycott any illegal poll in any case.

So Johnson could play for time and deny the SNP a referendum, perhaps hoping that a murky vendetta between Sturgeon and her predecessor as leader, Alex Salmond — over whether she told the truth about sexual misconduct allegations against him — could bring her down.

However, just saying no to a vote has its drawbacks. Angry nationalist sentiment will only increase and Sturgeon’s defiance may do serious damage. Last week she provided a foretaste when she appeared to side with Brussels against London in the row over AstraZeneca’s vaccine supplies to the continent.

Various schemes for constitutional reform have been floated by the opposition Labour Party to take the heat off the independence debate — one eye-catching plan suggests a federal U.K. Such tinkering pleases the high-minded but it won’t appease those for whom independence is an act of faith. A constitutional commission usually takes years to report, in any case, so the nationalists will call it out as a delaying tactic. Even if a new settlement were cobbled together quickly, the SNP would pocket any new powers and still come back for more.

Sooner or later, I would hazard, a referendum will be conceded if the popular demand is there. Canada found that it took two votes to kill off Quebec Libre separatism, the second time by a very narrow margin indeed.

The arguments will be fierce and Johnson isn’t the man to make them. To win, Unionists will have to go local. Scotland’s non-nationalist party leaders will have to put aside their differences and make the emotional as well as rational case for carrying on 300 years of multi-nationality and open borders.

SNP mismanagement of public services (paid for by London subsidies), a pre-Covid Scottish budget deficit of more than 8% and the need to keep its largest market — England — open to Scottish exports make for a strong Unionist platform. So too the troubled prospects for Scotland’s currency outside the Bank of England’s protection.

But identity politics aren’t wholly amenable to reason. The heart can rule the head. Just ask those U.K. voters who ignored a previous Conservative government’s warnings of national bankruptcy and chose to leave the EU. The sky didn’t fall on their heads, as prophesied, but neither did they enter the promised sunlit uplands. That result was encouragement enough for the SNP.

An influential wing of the Unionists wants to learn the lessons of the EU referendum. Had the leave campaign been forced to fight on the terms of the “Hard Brexit” eventually negotiated between London and Brussels, wavering voters might have opted to remain. The dreamers were aided by fuzziness about the true costs of quitting the single market.

The SNP have taken a similarly relaxed approach to the details, publishing a plan for independence last week that still didn’t settle how a Scottish currency would work. There lies its major weakness. London should only negotiate the terms of a divorce deal with the nationalists that can be put to the people of Scotland in a referendum. The just-about-managing floating voters who support independence in their hearts but vote with their wallets might tip the balance to the Union.

No battleplan remains intact once contact is made with the enemy, and this one is not ideal. But at least it is a plan. Johnson had better find his own strategy fast or resign himself to being the prime minister of England.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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