When the cabinet met on Tuesday in the Locarno Suite of the Foreign Office, one item was top of the agenda: the Union. The reason? Over the past four months, support for both Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish independence has risen. There is genuine worry in government that a few wrong moves could see Scotland on a path to independence. 'It’s the biggest single threat to the stability of this government,' warns a minister.
In order to prevent this a plan is underway. Boris Johnson is visiting Scotland today where he will outline new funding while there will be wider efforts to visibly strengthen ties between Westminster and the devolved governments. The Prime Minister has ordered ministers to spend more time in Scotland and appear on Scottish media more regularly while Michael Gove is leading efforts in the Cabinet Office to have a Union first strategy going forward.
However, few seem particularly hopeful of a turn of fortune in the short term. Senior Scottish Tories believe the best plan for avoiding an independence referendum anytime soon is to de-dramatise next year's Holyrood elections and the narrative more generally.
While Johnson has repeatedly said he will not grant a second independence referendum, there had been a general consensus that the surest way to guarantee no referendum was for the Tories – along with Scottish Labour – to stop the SNP winning an outright majority in next year’s Holyrood election. To do this, they could run on a pro-Union card, as in the 2019 election, and put the matter to bed for the foreseeable future. But with support for both the SNP and independence on the rise, this is now viewed by many Conservative politicians in Scotland as too risky.
'I’ve changed my mind on how we tackle this,' says a senior Tory. 'We need to walk it back and make sure that vote is not about independence. If we run on the Union as the main issue, we are heading to a place where they win and IndyRef2 becomes very likely. We can’t have an independence referendum with this Tory government.'
Instead, expect a focus on attacking Sturgeon for failings on education and coronavirus. The current political climate is viewed as too risky to take a gamble on an independence platform.