Katy Balls

Gove’s approach to IndyRef2: don’t talk about it

Gove's approach to IndyRef2: don't talk about it
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After the SNP fell short of a majority by just one seat in the Scottish Parliament elections, a stand off has formed between Nicola Sturgeon and the UK government. The First Minister has heralded a pro-independence Scottish parliament majority in Holyrood - arguing that when you take the Green party's gains north of the border into account, there is a clear case for a second independence referendum. Sturgeon plans to press ahead and legislate for a border poll – suggesting that the only way Boris Johnson can stop her is to go to court.

The UK government response so far is to not engage and instead talk about the whole of the UK working together to make the Covid recovery a success. In that vein, the Prime Minister has attempted to get on the front foot by sending a letter to the First Minister – which could also be summarised as light trolling from the UK government – praising the SNP's commitment to the post-Covid recovery and invited her to join ministers at a UK summit to discuss the shared challenges. The message is simple – rather than get into a debate over the possibility of a second independence referendum, Johnson wants his government to push on and talk about the benefits of the union. 

Only that approach is easier said than done, as Michael Gove discovered on this morning on the Andrew Marr show in Glasgow. The Cabinet Office minister appeared rather lost for words when the subject of Scottish independence came up. When asked by Marr as to whether the government would take Sturgeon to court to stop her pressing ahead, he would only say 'we're not going near there'. When pressed on whether this meant the UK government would no go to court, Gove refused to go into details and said that the 'truly important' issues were the Covid recovery and dealing with the backlog in the NHS. 

The Cabinet Minister argued that Scots were more interested in improving their day to day lives than finding out the latest on independence. Gove said it was 'clear' the result of the Scotland election was – like in England and Wales – about recovery. He pointed to Sturgeon's comments on the campaign to suggest that this election was about far more than independence. Although Gove was adamant Sturgeon was wrong to read a mandate for independence from the result, he did make sure to make this point while frequently complimenting the First Minister. Gove's preferred Scotland strategy of 'Operation Love Bomb' was on full display as he praised Sturgeon's success at the polls.

How long can this hold? No. 10's union strategy has, up until recently, been in a state of flux. There is now a desire to use the fact that the SNP fell short of an outright majority to push demands for a second independence referendum into the long grass. The UK government wants to do this carefully and is reluctant to outright deny Sturgeon a referendum as ministers worry about a backlash if Westminster looks as though it is saying a hard no. This is why ministers plan to keep talking about an 'irresponsible' referendum and name the Covid recovery as the priority. But if the SNP and Greens – as expected – press on regardless, this approach of refusing to engage could become untenable.

Listen to Stephen Daisley, Katy Balls and James Forsyth discuss what comes next for Scottish independence:

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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