During the Scottish parliament election campaign, Boris Johnson was criticised by the SNP for failing to visit Scotland. His absence wasn't seen as such a bad thing, however, by Scottish Tories who took the view that a visit from the Prime Minister was a risky bet and could actually prove a voter turn off when it came to a winning electoral pitch. So the very fact Johnson this week embarked on a visit north of the border ought to be taken as a sign that the independence situation is improving for unionists.
After Nicola Sturgeon fell one short of a majority in the Holyrood elections, an effort is underway to use this opportunity to boost support for the union. As James explained on Coffee House Shots, this involves ministers – including the Prime Minister – visiting Scotland so regularly that it is no longer a story or seen as news when they do. But Johnson's latest Scotland trip has left several Tories questioning the wisdom of this approach.
The visit had generally gone to plan until Johnson was asked by reporters while on a visit to Moray East offshore wind farm about Labour leader Keir Starmer's call for a 'hard-edged' timetable for cessation of oil and gas exploration. Johnson responded by saying the UK had already transitioned away from coal crediting Margaret Thatcher for starting the trend:
'Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we're now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.'
Johnson went on to quip: 'I thought that would get you going'.
Suggesting that Thatcher was actually a secret eco warrior in shutting coal mines across the North and Midlands in the 1980s is clearly not a conventional reading of history. It's no surprise that the comments have quickly been decried as 'crass and deeply insensitive' by Nicola Sturgeon – who said 'lives and communities in Scotland were utterly devastated by Thatcher’s destruction of the coal industry'.
Meanwhile, Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has called on Johnson to apologise for his comments that show 'disregard for the communities still scarred by Thatcher’s closure of the mines and failure to deliver good new jobs in their place'.
While these reactions are unlikely to bother Johnson too much, what will worry Downing Street is the fact it has also gone down like a lead balloon both with unionists and a number of 'red wall MPs'. The MP for the former mining constituency Blyth Valley, Ian Levy, responded by pointing out the Labour party closed more mines than Thatcher. Privately other MPs from the 2019 intake are asking why Johnson would make such a comment, given the party has only just won some of these former Labour voters over.
As for the union, Johnson is already viewed as a live wire when it comes to appealing to Scottish voters. His approval ratings in Scotland tend to be much lower than other parts of the United Kingdom. Ahead of the Conservative leadership campaign, Scottish Tories even came up with a secret operation – 'operation arse' – aimed at thwarting his leadership efforts. With Johnson now Prime Minister, he needs to not just appeal to would-be Tory voters but make sure he doesn't put voters on the left off the union entirely. Voters on the left need to be comfortable enough with the idea of a Tory government in Westminster that they can vote Scottish Labour rather than the SNP and for Scottish independence.
This week's trip was meant to show that such concerns are mistaken. Instead, it is likely to further solidify the view among Scottish Conservatives and unionists that they need to keep their distance from Boris Johnson.