The pandemic may still be in full swing but that hasn't stopped the SNP opting to push the case for an independence referendum sooner rather than later. Nicola Sturgeon claimed over the weekend that should the SNP win a majority (as expected) in the Scottish parliament elections, she will hold an advisory referendum on independence, whether or not Boris Johnson consents to the move.
Not everyone in government is convinced the First Minister would go ahead with this should push come to shove. But the fact it's even on the table points to the problem Johnson has on Scottish independence – his insistence that now is not the time for a second border poll will not be enough to make the issue go away. So, what will? Behind the scenes, efforts are underway to strengthen the union with a devoted team in government.
Johnson could even make his move this week. The Sun is reporting that the Prime Minister will visit Scotland in the coming days, where he is expected to 'make an impassioned plea for Scots to reject narrow separatism, and hail the benefits of being in the UK'. It comes as the government adopts a more unapologetic tone on independence – with a plan to push the vaccine programme as an example of a successful project made possible because of the Union.
But is Johnson the best messenger? As I reported in the magazine recently, unionists believe the best commodity for their cause these days is time. This is, in part, because Scottish Tories see Covid over Brexit as the main factor behind the increase in support for independence. In focus groups, Sturgeon's 'success' in handling the pandemic is often cited in contrast to Johnson's which is looked on unfavourably – even though the data for both countries makes grim reading. The sooner they can move past this period the better.
It also goes further than Johnson's handling of Covid. The Prime Minister’s unpopularity in Scotland is seen as a real issue by Tories, with the new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross at pains to distance himself from Johnson. Meanwhile, ministers say privately that one of the reasons it would be in the interests of unionists to push a referendum into the long grass is that by that point it's likely one of Johnson and Sturgeon would no longer be in charge. That would change the optics.
It's partly for these reasons that the minister Scottish Tories would most like to see north of the border is not in fact the Prime Minister. Instead, the figure believed to be the most effective is the Chancellor. Rishi Sunak is viewed by Tory strategists as the cabinet minister with the best appeal, outranking both Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown among Scottish swing voters. It would be in the government's interests to make sure that Johnson's trip is swiftly followed by one from the Chancellor.