Should Boris keep out of Scotland, whatever the Covid level?

Even many Scottish Conservatives seem nervous about the prime minister’s visits north. So who else is going to save them?

Artillery Row

“Welcome to Scotland” says the shotgun-wielding gamekeeper, Kincade, as he blows away a couple of villainous intruders to a highland hunting lodge in the James Bond film, Skyfall. The pleas from Nicola Sturgeon for the prime minister not to make his non-essential fording of the river Tweed, echoed by commentators begging to keep the virus – and its political vector – down south (all packaged up with an instant vox pop of ordinary Scots making clear they think he is, at best, an “eejit”) must leave Boris Johnson thinking he too is on the wrong end of Kincade’s salutation.

Actually, has there been a Conservative prime minister who was truly made to feel welcome in Scotland since Sir Alec Douglas-Home? He, at least, owned a small chunk of it. Even when the SNP was only Scotland’s fourth most popular party, there was a foreboding that visits from English Tories who happened to be prime minister brought mixed fortunes for Scottish Conservatism.

David Cameron (Scottish antecedents – the clue is in the name) took the hint and confined his visits to a minimum, even when campaigning, at a distance, in the 2014 independence referendum. Johnson’s testy relationships with Ruth Davidson and the latest Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, have left the clear impression that they wish he would do them a favour and not travel to Scotland during lockdown. And, if they were honest, at any other time.

Rightly nervous about their party’s state, many Scottish Conservatives would prefer that someone other than the prime minister made the trips north. Rishi Sunak is their preferred visitor, which is a bit of a slap in the chops for Aberdeenshire’s very own Michael Gove.

The thinking goes that Sunak would showcase modern, moderate, cash-spraying, conservatism. As the man from the Treasury, he could convey just how much of its borrowed money is making Scotland’s Covid response possible.

It might by jibed that only in the Conservative party would banishing an Old Etonian Oxonian in order to showcase an Old Wykehamist Oxonian be regarded as a bit more “street.” But popular perceptions appear to suggest it would work – at least until such time that Sunak turns off the money tap. Thereafter he may rapidly find himself evolving in the popular estimation from symbol of social mobility to heartless new rich son-in-law of a billionaire. All glory is fleeting.

But the wider point goes beyond guessing whether Sunak is now and ever after the solution, or even what it says about the future of the union if a British prime minister feels he cannot visit one of the four nations of it.

he is the best prime minister the union has got

Looked at purely in headline terms, a visit to Scotland by Boris Johnson succeeds in the narrow sense that it led most Scottish television news broadcasts. That is particularly significant considering that today was the day (doubtless pure coincidence on Downing Street’s part) that the Scottish government announced its budget plans for 2021-22.

Normally Kate Forbes, the finance secretary, would be given star-billing to set out her government’s spending priorities only months before May’s (still scheduled) Holyrood election. Instead, viewers of BBC Scotland’s main evening news programme, The Nine, had to watch Boris Johnson in a laboratory coat, the surprising embodiment of how Scotland’s vaccine hopes are in rather better hands than if Scotland was part of the EU’s procurement process, as “proudly European” Scottish nationalists would doubtless have preferred it to be. Sunak is more popular (it would be a struggle to be less) than Johnson and he might have articulated the case more fluently. But can we be sure his visit to a laboratory in Glasgow would have garnered the same interest?

Whatever they think of independence, most Scots have seemingly made their mind-up about Boris Johnson. Nothing he can do will make them look more favourably upon him. But he is the best prime minister the union has got. To pretend he does not exist is not really an answer. Particularly if no one else in the government can make the front page.

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