As votes were being counted on the night of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, David Cameron was in Downing Street eating a Chinese takeaway with George Osborne, senior aides and two of his young children. As victory was announced, they witnessed history sitting on their father’s lap.
If the result had gone the other way the PM had planned to say: “Scotland has spoken. We have lost. And we accept the result.”
Boris Johnson never wants to say those words.
He has known the dangers from day one: appointing himself minister for the union was no coincidence.
But since his premiership began, the outlook has gotten progressively worse.
Twenty consecutive opinion polls have suggested a majority of Scots back independence, the SNP are on course to secure a majority in May’s Holyrood elections, and calls for a second referendum are only likely to get louder.
Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership throughout the pandemic has been largely praised.
“She’s a technocrat and a policy wonk. She was born for a moment like this,” says one who knows the first minister well.
In contrast, Mr Johnson has failed to improve his reputation north of the border.
In December, one poll for The Scotsman put Nicola Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings at +28%, with the prime minister on -44%.
“Nicola wakes up each morning thinking ‘How can I secure independence?'” argues one senior Conservative. “Boris Johnson does not do the same with the union.”
On a controversial mid-lockdown visit to Scotland last week, Mr Johnson told journalists “wild horses won’t keep me away” from campaigning on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives in May.
But will their new leader (MP and part-time football referee) Douglas Ross want him? Some in the party are blunt: “In Scotland, Boris is toxic.”
The pressure on the prime minister to turn this tide was one factor behind the sacking this week of Luke Graham as head of the No 10 Union Unit.
It did not help that Mr Graham was appointed by the now-departed Dominic Cummings, whose approach to the threat of a second independence referendum was summarised by in government as: “Don’t waste my time. It’s not happening. Move on.”
Mr Graham, a 35-year-old former MP, is said to have been smooth and likable. Yet multiple sources argue his main problem was a lack of clout.
“Luke was serving no useful purpose and was completely bypassed in all discussions,” argues one former colleague. “He is not a strategist,” says another.
A third source claims: “He wasn’t effective. You have to have somebody who has the PM’s ear.”
During Labour’s 13 years in power, the person with a strong grip on Scottish issues was Gordon Brown, who is now providing advice on devolution to Sir Keir Starmer.
When Mr Cameron was in Number 10, veteran Conservative aide Andrew Dunlop was handpicked for the union role. He had served in both the Margaret Thatcher and John Major policy units, and knew which government levers to pull.
At the start of Theresa May’s premiership, her chief of staff Fiona Hill – who is Scottish – kept an eye on any and all threats to the union.
“When the Ministry of Defence was threatening to close a base in Scotland, she just phoned them up and said ‘that’s not happening'”, says one insider.
Mr Graham has already been replaced by Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave veteran who served as David Frost’s deputy in trade negotiations with the EU.
“He’d finished one project and they needed to find something for him to do,” says one senior Conservative.
He will be the third official to occupy the union role in just 12 months after Mr Graham and Elliot Roy, now head of policy for the Scottish Conservatives.
Mr Lewis – nicknamed “Sonic” – is highly trusted by the PM and has already started building relationships with relevant officials and politicians in Whitehall and Edinburgh.
He is understood to favour the tactics of the pro-Brexit campaign in keeping the sphere of influence small.
“We just need a small group to take control and let others think they’re involved,” says one source.
Some are hoping there will be no echoes of the government’s more bullish Brexit tactics, like threatening to break international law.
Michael Gove’s preferred strategy is said to be “love-bombing” Scotland – echoing the “Love Scotland, Vote No” campaign staged in the final days of the 2014 referendum.
The core trio of decision-makers and strategy-setters remains Mr Johnson, Mr Gove – whose Cabinet Office brief includes devolution – and Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary.
A Brexiteer with a keen interest in hunting, shooting and fishing, Mr Jack made his millions as a self-storage magnate in the nineties and noughties.
But behind his clubbable Monarch of the Glen image, colleagues claim the Scottish secretary is a wily operator who has forged a close relationship with the prime minister.
He is the fastest riser from the Conservatives’ 2017 intake, and impressed with his skills as a junior whip during votes on Mrs May’s Brexit deal in the Commons.
His “flock” of MPs included “the real Brexit hard cases” according to one MP, but he is said to have herded them with skill, and has since been tipped to become chief whip.
Mr Jack has succeeded in boosting his team and is now supported by an eye-watering four special advisers – more political fixers than most of his cabinet colleagues.
Three are solely tasked with media relations and selling the UK government’s work to Scottish newspapers and broadcasters.
Among them are two new hires based in Edinburgh: former Daily Mail journalist John Cooper, and ex-Scotsman political editor Tom Peterkin.
“They have a very clear job which is to be close to the Scottish parliament,” said one source. “And boozing with hacks in The Kilderkin” – a pub favoured by the Holyrood press pack.
Mr Cooper and Mr Peterkin will work at Queen Elizabeth House, the UK government’s sleek new Edinburgh headquarters, built on a prime spot between the city’s Waverley Station and the Scottish parliament.
Jokingly dubbed “The Deathstar” by some and the “Imperial Embassy” by others, it is “within paper dart chucking distance of [Scottish government HQ] St Andrew’s House”, says one in government.
Post-pandemic, the building will accommodate 3,000 staff, mostly from HMRC. But the site also boasts a secure Cabinet Room for when Team Johnson travels up en masse. Such a meeting was pencilled in for September 2020, but later cancelled.
A press conference space has been constructed and plans drawn up – since put on hold – for Number 10 press secretary Allegra Stratton to host one of her new daily media briefings in Scotland at least once a month.
There is even a roof terrace with views of Edinburgh Castle – currently earmarked for entertaining dignitaries during the Edinburgh Festival (weather permitting).
The new headquarters are part of a multimillion-pound attempt to solve one of the problems of devolution when in 1999, as one Conservative claims: “Donald Dewar gave everything away.”
When Mr Dewar became Scotland’s first first minister, most UK government buildings north of the border instantly became property of the Scottish government, leaving officials in Whitehall struggling to be active or visible.
Central to the UK government’s current “love-bombing” strategy are attempts to invest in and communicate with Scots, whilst bypassing the Scottish government.
The UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for EU structural cash, will allow UK ministers to spend money north of the border and claim credit for it. Scotland should also get its first freeport, with Aberdeen, Orkney and Shetland likely to submit bids.
On transport, Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy is heading up a “union connectivity review” that will explore how to better link the four nations.
He is likely to consider the case for extending HS2 to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, as well as upgrading the A75 and A77 which could speed up movement of freight arriving from Northern Ireland onto central Scotland and northern England.
But there is also recognition in the UK government that economic messages have their limits, as proven by the Brexit referendum, and that in the communication battle, the Scottish government is always likely to win.
“The underlying reality is 24/7 the SNP pump out a pro-independence message,” says one veteran Conservative. “No 10 do not.”
With a new head of the Union Unit, we are likely to see further investment in the nations, more prime ministerial visits to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as a continued refusal to grant any independence referendum.
Yet it remains unclear whether the PM’s increased visibility north of the border will help or hinder the UK’s case.
Mr Johnson may have to confront a central concern of some Scottish Conservatives in both Westminster and Edinburgh – that one of the biggest drivers for support in Scottish independence is him.
— to news.sky.com