BORIS Johnson is an “absolute asset” to the Union and the Scottish Conservative cause in the run-up to the May Holyrood elections, Alister Jack has insisted, as he argued that the UK Government was “not losing the argument on the Union”.
The Scottish Secretary’s remarks in an exclusive interview with The came as he prepared today to welcome the Prime Minister to Scotland, who ahead of his first visit here this year, insisted the combined strength of the UK would be crucial in “building back better” following the pandemic.
“The great benefits of co-operation across the whole of the UK have never been clearer than since the beginning of this pandemic,” declared Mr Johnson.
“We have pulled together to defeat the virus, providing £8.6 billon to the Scottish Government to support public services whilst also protecting the jobs of more than 930,000 citizens in Scotland.”
He added: “Mutual co-operation across the UK throughout this pandemic is exactly what the people of Scotland expect and it is what I have been focussed on.
“The people of the UK have stood together during this pandemic, from our doctors and nurses in our hospitals to our shop workers, scientists, lorry drivers and teachers. Working together as one truly United Kingdom is the best way to build our Covid recovery.”
But the SNP insisted Mr Johnson’s visit was a sign of a “prime minister in panic”. Earlier, Nicola Sturgeon took him to task, suggesting his visit broke Scottish Government Covid rules because it was “non-essential”.
The First Minister upbraided the PM by insisting senior government figures had a “duty to lead by example”. But Mr Jack dismissed such attacks as “utter nonsense” and accused the SNP of peddling “petty politics” at a time of crisis.
Faced with 20 consecutive polls placing the Yes campaign ahead, the Scottish Secretary was asked how he would respond to Ms Sturgeon’s suggestion that the Unionist cause is losing the constitutional argument as it was clear most people in Scotland now wanted independence.
“I don’t think we are losing the argument on the Union because people are thinking Covid and they haven’t really focused very hard[on the constitution],” declared Mr Jack.
“If you look at those opinion polls and remove the don’t-knows the independence movement is sitting at 45%, which is where it was in 2014.”
This was a figure in a poll earlier this month which placed the pro-Union support two points lower at 43% with the don’t-knows on 12%. However, a snapshot at the weekend had the Yes-No split at 49/44 with don’t-knows on 7%.
The Secretary of State said: “When people are focused on the issues, after Covid is in the rear-view mirror, they will quickly realise, I hope, the benefits of the UK; the huge response the Treasury has made through the furlough scheme, supporting almost a million jobs in Scotland.”
Mr Jack also pointed to £8.6bn of Exchequer help that went to Scotland in 2020 to fight the pandemic and argued this was what people should focus on: the strength of the Union.
“More importantly, there is a strong, emotional argument to be made, which is: we’re all one United Kingdom, one country with one currency; we’re in that rowing boat in choppy waters, pulling on the oars together. There are close bonds across the UK of family and friendship and I just don’t think as we focus on recovery from the pandemic and saving people’s jobs and livelihoods, we need the division of another referendum. We know, historically, referendums seem to be good at one thing: bringing bad feeling and rancour.”
After several Tory sources told The they regarded Mr Johnson as an electoral liability in Scotland, the Scottish Secretary was asked if the party would try to keep him south of the border in the weeks before the May 6 polling day.
“No,” he declared, explaining how the pandemic had derailed the PM’s plan to make regular trips north of the border but this was now back on track. “He will visit Scotland at least half a dozen times this year. And there are 11 days of COP in Glasgow in November. He is going to be in Scotland a lot this year.”
Asked if Mr Johnson would be playing a full part in promoting the Scottish Conservative in the Holyrood campaign with visits to Scotland, Mr Jack replied: “Yes, of course.”
He added: “I promise you his heart is absolutely on strengthening the Union and levelling up across the whole of the UK and he will focus on that and that will be for the good of the economy in all parts of the UK. He won’t be derailed from that agenda. He is an absolute asset. In all my dealings with him he is very clear what matters to him is the whole of the UK getting a fair share.”
In other points –
*the Secretary of State suggested the UK Government would not mount a legal challenge to stop a Holyrood-run Indyref2 because there would be no need to as it would be an illegal “wildcat” poll like the one in Catalonia in 2017, which London “would not recognise”. Asked if he, therefore, thought the Scottish Government plan a stunt, Mr Jack replied: “Correct.”
*He confirmed there would be a big push on promoting the Union. Several initiatives had been put on hold because of the battle against Covid-19 but some of which, like the Dunlop Review on strengthening the Union, were set to be made public soon.
*The interim Hendy Union Connectivity report will be published soon and include an update on the “fantastic” £20m plan for a road tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Mr Jack stressed supporters of the scheme wanted an early emphasis on improving the roads to Cairnryan port but also noted how he wanted a “proper analysis” undertaken on the Irish Sea tunnel option.