Prime minister Boris Johnson has hailed the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme as a demonstration of the power of the union ahead of Scottish elections in May that could provide a new platform for independence.
Johnson said in a speech to the Scottish Conservatives’ online conference on Sunday that the vaccination rollout — one of the most rapid in the world — had “brought our country together”.
“It shows that the great British spirit that saw us through so much adversity in the past, lives on in us today,” he said.
Polls suggest the Scottish National party is on course to win elections to the parliament in Edinburgh on May 6 that it hopes will provide a platform to push for a second referendum on independence from the UK.
A series of polls last year suggested more Scottish voters supported leaving the UK than backed the union, but analysts say the success of the vaccination programme may be a factor in softening support for independence over the past few months.
However, Johnson’s speech also underscored Tory acceptance that they have no hope of winning in May and aim instead merely to stop the SNP winning a majority. In the proportionally representative Scottish parliament, winning a majority is a much harder task than it would be at Westminster.
Since 2016, the SNP has run a minority government, with Scottish Green votes providing a pro-independence majority in parliament.
“[The Conservatives] are the only party that can stop an SNP majority and their drive towards a second independence referendum,” Johnson said.
While the SNP still enjoys a large lead in polls of voter intention for May, the party is in the throes of a bitter rift between leader Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor as first minister and former mentor Alex Salmond.
In his speech, Johnson made no mention of his previous insistence that Westminster’s approval would be required for another Scottish independence referendum.
Johnson in January said the UK should not allow any rerun of the 2014 referendum, in which voters in Scotland backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent, until the 2050s at the earliest.
Some in the Conservative UK government privately accept that a revival of Scottish Labour will be crucial to turning the long-term tide against independence by winning left-leaning voters away from the SNP.
But Johnson made clear his priority was to use the independence issue to woo pro-union Labour voters to a Conservative party he portrayed as the only effective defender of the union. “Labour are too weak and they cannot be trusted to stand up to the SNP,” he said.
The Conservatives hope to undermine support for independence by bypassing the government in Edinburgh to spend UK funds directly on infrastructure and other projects, even in areas such as transport that have been devolved to the Scottish parliament since 1999.
Such investment was made possible by post-Brexit UK legislation that has been denounced by both the SNP and the pro-union Labour government in Wales as an assault on devolution.
Alister Jack, UK Scotland secretary, told the Tory conference that Westminster would work with local authorities and others that “knew best” what communities needed.
“We intend to ensure this money is spent for the betterment of people the length and breadth of Scotland, and not left to moulder in the coffers of [the Scottish first minister’s official residence] Bute House,” Jack said.