Katy Balls

Boris Johnson’s new approach to an independence referendum

Boris Johnson's new approach to an independence referendum
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Unionists are finding reasons for optimism when it comes to saving the union. As Nicola Sturgeon comes under fire north of the border over her handling of the Alex Salmond inquiry, 'No' has taken the lead in several recent independence polls. A poll this week for the Scotsman also suggested the SNP is no longer set for a majority in May's Scottish parliament election; instead it predicted a hung parliament.

Of course, the SNP could still secure a majority in the upcoming elections. If anything, that is still viewed as the more likely scenario by Tories in Westminster. This is in part why ministers are having to carefully plan their response as to what do in such a scenario. Given that the SNP have been clear they will quickly push for a second independence referendum if the party wins the election, the Prime Minister needs a response. The Daily Telegraph reports that Boris Johnson will make clear his response to any such question when he addresses the Scottish Conservative Party conference on Sunday. 

The Prime Minister is expected to say he will not grant a second Scottish independence referendum, even if the SNP wins a majority in May’s Holyrood elections – arguing that holding a referendum during the pandemic would be 'reckless'. 

This is something I recently reported on for the magazine: that Johnson was considering moving from his original, point-blank refusal to hold a referendum on the grounds that the last was ‘once in a generation’ to creating wiggle room. He'll do this by talking about the need to avoid a ‘reckless’ referendum — a word which implies that, while it’s the wrong time for a poll now, things could change in the future.

It comes following the departure of Vote Leave aide Oliver Lewis as head of the union unit (after just two weeks in the role). Lewis had been pushing for a more robust approach in contrast to Michael Gove’s Project Love strategy. The idea of warning against a 'reckless' referendum fits into this. While there has always been widespread agreement across the various factions that now is not the time for a referendum, opinion has been divided on when is the right time – a firm 'once in a generation' or simply not right now? 

The argument goes that by softening the language and ruling out a referendum only in the near future, the government will come across as more reasonable. This will be helpful in the face of a rise in support for independence seen in the early stage of the pandemic. It also provides time for the party to build support for the union and improve the political weather. However, the best case scenario for Johnson is that the SNP fail to win a majority in the first place and the request never arrives.