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Dan O’Donoghue: Is Number 10 in ‘panic mode’ over the union?

Boris Johnson benefits
Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019.

As coronavirus took hold of the nation last March and Brits began preparing for life in lockdown, Downing Street was quietly starting to fret over another crisis: The future of the Union.

Brexit and the arrival of Boris Johnson in Number 10 had re-energised Scotland’s independence movement and the lead the unionists had enjoyed for so long in the polls was starting to ebb away.

The 2019 general election saw the number of Scottish Tory MPs fall from 13 to six. More significantly, the SNP returned 48 MPs in a yellow surge that put independence firmly back on the agenda.

To turn the tide, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office decided to establish a policy unit in the heart of Westminster that would be dedicated to the Union.

A former Scottish MP was given sole charge of this “Union unit” with a brief to take the fight to the SNP, streamline UK Government policy to make it Union- friendly and be the behind-the-scenes coordinator/fixer for Scotland.

Eleven months on and that man, Luke Graham, has been sacked on the back of 20 opinion polls showing majority support for independence.

Some have tried to blame Mr Graham for not turning the Union’s fortunes around, but the seeds of today’s problems were sown many years ago.

Multiple sources told me the problems really began with Theresa May’s arrival in Number 10. Right from the off there were clashes between Ruth Davidson’s office and May’s then-top adviser, Fiona Hill from Greenock, over the direction of the Scottish Tory party.

Johnson’s arrival saw things go from bad to worse. The prime minister’s team distrusted the Scottish party; they saw a lot of Scottish Tories as “remainers” and a hindrance to his “Get Brexit Done” government.

That distrust was manifest in the sacking of Scotland Office veteran David Mundell, who had been in Dover House since 2010.

Mundell’s departure was soon followed by Davidson’s exit in Edinburgh.

For a while the case for the Union was “lost at sea”, with the focus in Westminster squarely on Brexit.

Since completion of the Brexit deal, there has been a scramble in Number 10 to get out in front of the independence issue.

Following Mr Graham’s sacking, Number 10 gave Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave protege of Dominic Cummings, the Union unit.

Sources who know Lewis say he is “a street fighter” who will “get things done”.

Lewis already has a team of three and this week got the green light to hire four more members of staff to devise policies that make the United Kingdom an attractive offer in Scotland.

“He won’t leave any stone unturned in the fight against the SNP,” a Westminster source told me.

But before Lewis and his unit kick into action, it will be the turn of the Scottish Tory party to take on the SNP and the argument for independence at May’s Holyrood elections.

How Douglas Ross performs in May will give Number 10 an indication of the scale of the challenge to save the Union and shape the intensity of the campaign they have to fight this year.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: A couple of Union Flag-clad visits and a spreadsheet detailing how much Holyrood has been given in Barnett consequentials won’t cut it. The polls are starting to suggest Scots are ranking sovereignty above money, as England’s Brexit voters did in 2016.

There will need to be a much more emotive case for the Union this time and Johnson is not the man to make it.

Poll after poll has shown the prime minister is not well received in Scotland. His role as Brexiteer-in-chief is by far his most damaging trait, while his perceived poor handling of the pandemic has contributed and his eccentric style doesn’t land north of the border.

Therein lies the problem: Lewis and his team may well end up devising any number of Union-boosting policies only to find they have no one to front them.

If Ross is humiliated in May, will he stay on? Does Ruth Davidson want to take on the responsibility of a referendum campaign? And what of the cavalry? Scottish Labour are still navel gazing in their leadership contest, while the Lib Dems are a relatively spent force.

So, to the question of whether Number 10 is in panic mode over the Union…

It would be safe to assume the answer is yes.

Dan O’Donoghue is the Press and Journal’s Westminster correspondent

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