Boris Johnson has accused the Scottish National party of seeking to promote division and conflict when the United Kingdom should be solely focused on recovering from the pandemic.
The prime minister told the Scottish Conservatives he found it “incredible” that Nicola Sturgeon’s party was pursuing a second referendum when the Covid crisis needed “a collective effort that will require the efforts and strengths of every part of the United Kingdom”.
“We can build back better – but only if we all come together,” he said. “The SNP want to divide us, to turn Scotland against itself, at this of all times.”
Addressing the Scottish Tories’ online spring conference in a pre-recorded speech, Johnson sought to invigorate Tory activists as they begin campaigning for May’s Holyrood elections by insisting the SNP were not “invincible.”
The prime minister said the Tory goal was to prevent Sturgeon winning a majority in the Scottish parliament – a result the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems believe is essential if the SNP’s quest for a second referendum is to be thwarted.
The latest polls show a fall in support for the SNP in the wake of the bitter feud between Sturgeon and her former mentor Alex Salmond, dampening expectations of an outright SNP majority. Even so, support for the SNP remains at about 50%, more than double the 23% enjoyed by the Tories in second place.
Support for remaining in the UK has been narrowly in the lead in six successive polls, for the first time in a year. Pollsters believe that is largely because of the success of the UK’s mass vaccination programme, reversing a surge in the yes vote driven by Scottish antipathy to Johnson’s premiership.
Johnson avoided stating that the Tories would never authorise a fresh referendum, in an effort to blunt accusations he is being anti-democratic. Instead, he put the emphasis on “great British spirit” and unity, and the urgent need for economic recovery.
He pointed to £13.3bn of extra UK government spending in Scotland – a figure that includes future funding pledges, and the 930,000 jobs supported by the Treasury’s furlough scheme, the self-employed and small businesses.
That was being bolstered by the multibillion-pound “levelling up” investment fund for local communities, which will be administered by UK ministers and will circumvent the Scottish government.
He claimed voters too were focused on their jobs and families, not the constitution. “I just find it incredible then that the SNP would choose this moment to again push their campaign for separation,” he said.
“Just when everything is beginning to reopen again, when we will soon be reunited with our friends and family, the SNP think that this is the time to turn us all against one another. To start another political fight. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this: it is their party’s obsession.”
Influenced too by the downturn in support for independence, the SNP is also softening its rhetoric about the urgent case for a new referendum.
Late last year, Mike Russell, Scotland’s constitutional affairs secretary, told EU ambassadors that the SNP could stage a vote this November, the month the UK hosts the global Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, echoed that suggestion this month.
On Sunday, Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader, instead pointed to a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times that showed 55% of voters supported staging a vote within five years. The poll found that 47% opposed independence and 46% backed it.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister charged with the UK government’s counter-offensive against Scottish independence, is visiting Scotland on Monday to announce that hundreds of Whitehall civil service jobs will be moving north. About 500 Cabinet Office posts will relocate to Glasgow, along with hundreds of new Foreign Office jobs.