It makes bleak sense, when you think about it. The history of Unionism is littered with self-inflicted wounds and missed opportunities. So of course the Prime Minister would lose his grip on the Union Unit just as the Scottish government seems to be facing an acute crisis.
Alex Salmond has once again withdrawn from giving evidence to MSPs after the Crown Office stepped in and got the Scottish parliament to redact his evidence (again). As it was already in the public domain, we can all see that the censored portions relate not to the naming of vulnerable women, but to criticism of Nicola Sturgeon.
Yet it still feels hard to believe it’s going to impact the SNP’s poll ratings. Labour are still having their leadership contest, while leading Conservatives seem reluctant to go entirely on the attack lest they give their activists funny ideas about the wisdom of devolution.
In an alternative reality, we might hope that there was a crack team in Whitehall preparing to capitalise on the separatists’ woes. But we know that there isn’t, because only weeks after ousting the former MP Luke Graham to install Vote Leave alumni Oliver Lewis as head of the Union Unit, the Prime Minister has somehow lost him too.
The key question is: why? To read most of the press, it seems to have been a humdrum if fairly unedifying inter-personal power struggle between different factions in the Downing Street court. But could his departure signal a change in strategy?
Out is one of Downing Street’s steeliest opponents to another referendum. Perhaps too are his ambitious plans to rebuild Westminster as the government for the whole United Kingdom. The threat is that think-tanker wheezes such as a ‘constitutional conventions’ re-enter the discussion. Talk is turning to the idea of another referendum, subject only to some effort to put conditions on it that favour the pro-UK side.
If true — and we must remember that the Prime Minister hasn’t actually filled the vacancy in the Union Unit yet — this is a catastrophic misjudgement that could come to define his place in the history books.
Start with the raw tactics of it. This is a very bad juncture to put the Union to the test. Boris Johnson is, whether he likes it or not, a drag on the cause north of the border. By contrast Sturgeon is, according to recent polling, an irreplaceable asset to the separatists. Time is obviously catching up with her exhausted party but it remains, for now, the comfortable first choice for Scottish voters.
Kicking a referendum into the long grass — for example, ruling it out in the lifetime of this parliament — not only make it unlikely that Johnson will have to face the question, but it will also bring huge pressure to bear on the First Minister. Her position inside the SNP is already under siege from activists impatient with her gradualist (not to mention law-abiding) approach to independence.
The one thing guaranteed to hold the Nationalists together is the imminent prospect of another vote. That’s why Sturgeon has been stringing her base along with the illusory promise of one for so long. It would be unspeakable folly for the government to do anything but vow that no referendum will take place for at least a generation.
Critics of this approach insist that you 'can’t just say no forever'. But that misrepresents the case. You don’t need to say no forever to insist on a proper, generation gap between independence votes. And you certainly don’t ‘just’ refuse a referendum — you use the time refusal buys you to mount an ambitious and aggressive constitutional and political counter-attack.
Ministers would also need a broader and more persuasive justification for refusal than just reciting 'once in a generation'. But such a case is waiting to be made. Allowing independence to be relitigated every few years strikes at the very heart of how the Union operates. The ‘pooling and sharing’ of resources around the UK is defensible as a mutual long-term commitment, but not as a one-way deal which the other party reserves the right to walk away from at any time.
If the government wants to protect political consent for fiscal transfers, it has to impose reasonable restrictions on efforts to break the country apart.
Those who take the opposing view insist that the Prime Minister grants the SNP a referendum he doesn’t have to, at a time of historic crisis, and risk going down as the 21st-century Lord North, because refusal would see journalists and constitutional enthusiasts asking ‘difficult questions’ and perhaps get the impression that his was not a ‘grown-up government’.
Nor is this bizarre proposal sweetened by the various schemes suggested to try and stack the deck in the Union’s favour. Boris Johnson doesn’t have to repeat David Cameron’s mistake of giving way to the SNP on the timing and the question, but most of these cunning Westminster schemes would do more harm than good.
Take the idea of a constitutional convention — where we all sit around for 18 months discussing how to butcher the very fabric the United Kingdom’s political settlement. Not only would it inevitably be colonised by the usual enthusiasts for their usual laundry list of reforms, but nobody who does the courtesy of taking the SNP seriously can indulge the idea that their challenge can be ‘solved’ by generous constitutional tinkering. They aren’t fighting for a senate or a council of ministers — but they will gladly use either institution to undermine the United Kingdom if given the chance.
But this pales in comparison to negotiating the terms of Scottish independence before the referendum (an idea previously explored by James Forsyth). It is difficult to conceive of a more destructive policy.
Imagine inflicting on the country a re-run of the last few years’ agonising negotiations with the European Union, but for much higher stakes. Imagine gifting a separatist Scottish government the opportunity to negotiate with HM government on equal terms. Imagine the deep wells of ill-feeling, on both sides of the border, that will open up as the two sides play-act the horrible process of picking the country apart.
It shouldn’t need saying, but you seldom save a marriage by subjecting the couple to brutal pre-emptive divorce proceedings.
But it makes sense that stuff like this is getting wheeled out, because their advocates recognise that to win a referendum in the next few years they will need both political tricks and constitutional bribes (not to mention providence). Yet winning such a referendum is necessary but not sufficient to ‘save the Union’. Making structural concessions to buy political time is the constitutional equivalent of selling assets to cover costs. If unionists allow themselves to get forced into regularly buying short-term victories at unsustainable prices, the nationalists have won.
A wise commander picks his battles. Sturgeon is desperate for a fight, which is precisely why the Prime Minister should refuse her one, build up his forces, and remember that a victory over Sturgeon at the wrong price is merely defeat deferred. To quote a source he’ll be familiar with: 'One more such victory, and we are undone.'