Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson has pledged to fight for the union “with every breath in my body” but failed to definitively rule out granting Nicola Sturgeon the power to hold a second independence referendum.
Jeremy Hunt, the rival candidate bidding to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, insisted he would say a “polite” no to any request from the Scottish First Minister.
In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the SNP said it should be a once in a generation event – and Mr Johnson said “we should stick to that promise”.
He spoke out on a visit to the BAE Systems shipyard in Govan, Glasgow, ahead of a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Perth.
The Brexiteer repeated his arguments that taking the UK out of the EU – something most Scots voted against – could strengthen the union.
He said: “The union must come first and I believe also, as it happens, that a good, sensible, pragmatic Brexit will strengthen the union.”
Mr Johnson added: “Far from weakening the union, a good, sensible Brexit will spike the guns of the SNP and strengthen the union.”
He described himself as being a “passionate unionist”, telling reporters: “I will defend it, fight for it with every fibre in my being every breath in my body.”
On the subject of a possible second independence referendum – which Ms Sturgeon has been pressing for since the Brexit vote in 2016 – Mr Johnson said: “We had a referendum in 2014, I remember it well, I obviously campaigned on the side of the UK and the union because I believe in it passionately and I was delighted to see it win.
“It was a decisive win and I don’t think there is any more need, speaking personally, to see any more referendums on that subject for this generation.
“We did it then, people voted then, they were assured that their votes were decisive, they were told this was a once in a generation thing and I think we should stick to that promise.”
On Thursday, Mrs May said she had “no hesitation” in refusing permission for the Scottish Government to hold another referendum when she was asked.
Mr Hunt insisted he would “not engage” with the Scottish First Minister on the possibility of another ballot.
Speaking in Perth, he said: “I will engage fully, responsibly and generously on everything that helps Scotland move forward but I will not engage with (Nicola Sturgeon) on the issue of independence, which will take Scotland backwards.
“If she asks for a second independence referendum, I will decline in the most British and polite way, but it will be a no.”
The Foreign Secretary also hit out at the Scottish Government, saying ministers in Edinburgh must do more to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
He claimed the current arrangements were “very disappointing”, saying: “All of us have to do more but to date as I’ve been watching the no-deal preparations I would like to see more focus on that from Nicola Sturgeon.
“(The Scottish Government) have been very disappointing in their preparations of a no-deal Brexit, which none of us want, but any responsible Government or authority in the United Kingdom should be taking seriously because there is that risk.”
He insisted it was “not the time” to detail what steps the Scottish Government should be taking but added: “I think they know, and we know, the areas where more can be done.”
Addressing the audience at the hustings in Perth Concert Hall, Mr Hunt attacked the SNP as “the most bullying, divisive, duplicitous, anti-business government that Scotland has ever seen”.
He pledged to retain the Barnett formula, which governs the allocation of public spending across the UK, as did Mr Johnson – confirming a U-turn from his previous criticism of it as a “present” from English taxpayers to Scotland.
Mr Hunt ruled out enabling the Scottish Government to hold a second independence referendum while he was prime minister, while his rival did not give a similar assurance.
Questioned on whether he would rule out another referendum, Mr Johnson said: “I see absolutely no case for having a second referendum in Scotland. I think it’s absurd.”
Protesters gathered outside the venue behind a banner demanding End London Rule, while other placards read Tory Scum Out.