Boris Johnson is planning a third summer trip to Scotland next month, as Downing Street switches its SNP strategy from “defensive” to “offensive”.
The prime minister will be followed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak later this year as part of a “regular roll call” of ministerial forays north of the border, we can reveal.
The visits sit within a wider strategy shakeup, that will also see “subtle changes to messaging” and a greater role for Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross – dubbed by one insider the “deputy minister for the union”.
The change in tack comes as polls continue to show rising support for independence and strong backing for Nicola Sturgeon’s government.
The latest Panelbase poll found only 45% of Scots support staying in the UK, giving Yes a 10% lead, once undecided voters are removed.
The figures are a reverse image of the 2014 referendum result, in which 55% to 45% voted to remain part of the UK.
A senior Whitehall source told us last year there wasn’t “nearly enough panic” in Number 10 over such polls, but that has now firmly shifted, insiders insist.
“That’s changed, there’s a greater understanding at the top of government of the challenge,” a senior Downing Street source tells us now.
“There will be subtle changes in messaging, there will be moves away from defensive language around defending our precious union and moves instead to promoting a positive message around the four nations,” the insider says.
“The SNP have managed to paint Westminster as Mordor and we need to change that, Boris understands the scale of the challenge ahead.”
Newly elected Scottish leader Douglas Ross will play a “key role” in taking the fight to the SNP, we understand.
Mr Johnson is said to be keen not to make a habit of criticising Sturgeon’s administration directly as he doesn’t want to be viewed as a “president going after a governor”.
“If Sturgeon was an MP then it would be fair game, but she’s not. Douglas will be taking the fight to them, along with Alister (Jack) and we’ll of course offer support,” a source said.
Number 10 also sees Mr Ross as key to “shaking things up” at Holyrood, which at times can operate like a “chumocracy” between MSPs.
The shakeup comes on the back of concerns from Scottish Tories that demands for a second independence referendum would “become very difficult to resist” if the SNP do win a majority at Holyrood in 2021.