There is something distinctly odd about Boris Johnson’s visit to Scotland, not least because the optics of the visit look slightly strange.
Covid has greatly curtailed ministerial diaries and the Downing Street grid of ‘must do’ visits reigned in as the new normal limits activity far and wide of the Westminster bubble.
Yesterday, we had the raise of a First Minster’s eyebrow inquiring why Johnson thought the visit ‘essential’ in the age of Covid travel restrictions. From the Commons despatch box, the Scottish Secretary Alister Jack intoned that the Prime Minister will go anywhere in the Kingdom in the execution of his duties.
Not to be outdone, today the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, branded Nicola Sturgeon ‘Moanalot’. When you can bury diplomacy with a heap of derision, Rees-Mogg always has shovel-ready barbs designed to irritate opponents.
The minor inter-governmental skirmish over the trip shouldn’t be overblown. In truth it doesn’t amount to much. Neither side will elevate it to full-blown rammy, rightly judging that given the times we are living through, such noise would be regarded as fundamentally tacky.
And yet yesterday’s response from Sturgeon was not only predictable but foreseeable. I can’t really understand why, at this time, the Prime Minister’s advisers in Downing Street thought the trip a good idea. He is not popular in Scotland whilst the First Minister enjoys high approval ratings. In the Punch and Judy politics of one-upmanship, the Prime Ministerial chin was proffered and gently jabbed.
Johnson would also have known that, although he came to emphasise the value of the union in the matter of rolling out vaccines, he was likely to be drawn on more controversial matters central to how his premiership will be judged in historical terms.
Specifically, he would be asked why he would continue to say ‘no’ to another independence referendum even if there is yet another Holyrood majority for one after May’s elections. The pictures of the visit may be dominated by Covid-related issues but the hard politics would read: ‘Johnson continues to say no on the constitution.’
The last 20 opinion polls show majority support for independence. Apart from just saying no to IndyRef2, it is not known, to this observer at least, if that is the sum total of Conservative thinking on the subject of the constitution.
Elsewhere on the unionist side, Scottish Labour continue to twitch uneasily, knowing they need a coherent message but being unsure what it is. Gordon Brown says the danger is that the UK looks like a failed state and wants fresh thinking via citizen assemblies. Many in the party want to embrace a Federal system.
The problem for some unionist parties is that wider thinking is not even half-baked, never mind oven ready and however internal debates crystallise, new ideas will not be here in time for May’s poll which looks like being a referendum on a referendum.
The Prime Minister believes that the vaccination rollout is an example of why being part of a bigger political union counts. From the Lighthouse Laboratory, which processes Covid tests in Glasgow, to a vaccine factory in Livingston this afternoon, this was symbolism with a key message.
In Livingston, he gave one pooled interview, as is keeping with Downing Street’s policy of limiting scrutiny. In that interview, Johnson repeatedly stressed his focus was on fighting the pandemic which he thought the nations of the UK were doing effectively together. In fact ‘together’ was his watchword today, as in Better Together.
As for the IndyRef2 demands, the answers were familiar. It was a “distraction” from fighting the pandemic. He argued that voters were told in 2014 that it was ‘once in a generation’ and he charged those arguing for independence with failing to answer key questions on currency and security. In short, a reiteration of the existing line.
It looks as if the ground that will dominate the forthcoming election will be all too familiar. It will be a re-run of every post 2014 election campaign and one seen largely through the prism of the constitution.
The irony is that the Prime Minister’s visit came on the day when the finance secretary Kate Forbes announced details of the Scottish Government’s budget priorities for the next year. This was not about the constitution but about the bread and butter issues that affect all votes in a very direct way.
How the opposition at Holyrood must hope that health, education, jobs, transport et al will be THE issues when the serious campaigning starts. However as last week demonstrated, the issue of another referendum will not go away not least because the current government have made clear they will seek a new mandate for another plebiscite.