Can Boris the chameleon surprise Scotland?

By July 24, 2019Public Affairs

So, is Boris Johnson’s appointment today as Prime Minister the open goal for the SNP and the wider pro-independence campaign as some believe? As the architect and likely midwife for Brexit – a policy that’s still deeply unpopular most points north of Carlisle – Nicola Sturgeon will be ready to pounce every time Boris puts a foot wrong or makes a gaffe. The assumption is that there will be plenty opportunities for that to happen. The reckoning is that a majority in Scotland will be ready and willing to hold another referendum and the possibility of an early general election might just give the SNP the renewed mandate to make it happen.

However, that doesn’t take in to account one very important factor – the new PM is nothing if not unpredictable. Granted, his room to manoeuvre on Brexit is limited. Granted also that the personal style that’s his stock in trade has the capacity to grate as much if not more than it amuses away from the Home Counties where it was nurtured. Yet the more I hear opposition politicians and wary commentators slate him for past missteps and examples of bad behaviour (and there are a lot to choose from) the more I wonder if they’re missing the point.

That’s because Boris Johnson is the ultimate political chameleon, whose colours can change from moment to moment before your eyes, usually as a means of effecting his own survival. Cast your mind back to 2016 when then Prime Minister David Cameron waited along with the rest of us to see which way Boris would turn on Brexit. To campaign to leave or to support a PM looking for a mandate to effect reform from within. Remember the pair of newly minted Daily Telegraph op-eds, one for Leave and the other for Remain? In the end he plumped to publish the Leave version and keep the Remain draft locked in the bureau drawer of history.

The rest is history but the assumption back then was that it could have gone either way and that Johnson took the option most likely to speed his own path to prominence in that campaign and ultimately to the role of Prime Minister.

Well it’s taken three years but the gamble has finally paid off. What we are left with is a leader who has shaped his own image as a die-hard Brexiteer but one who also clothes himself as the heir to Cameron’s once fashionable style of One-Nation Conservatism. He paints himself as a social liberal, effectively the heir to Cameron’s programme of soft-centred, electable, pragmatic style that kept Labour out of power for a decade because quite a few voters didn’t mind it, austerity and all.

My hunch is that now that he’s in power and if he can bring some sort of non-disaster resolution to Brexit as promised (and that’s a big if!), Johnson will represent the type of challenge that the SNP might just struggle with: that of the unknown quantity.

In a column for The Times today the journalist Kenny Farquharson laments the fact that the outline for Boris’s appeal to Scotland as Prime Minister is effectively window dressing and not a serious programme. A new Minister for the Union here; a fresh commitment to the Barnett Formula there. OK, this is thin stuff but so what? If Johnson can somehow spend the next 99 days getting a settlement on Europe that – as promised – delivers a ‘good’ deal on Brexit then he will have a lot of latitude to sort out the rest later.

And if he does get to that point, there’s every chance he could put together the sort of wider policy platform on devolution that bolsters rather than harms Ruth Davidson’s chances of further improving the Tories’ standing in Scotland. Freed from Brexit and its capacity to suck the bandwidth available for any other topic of consideration, there’s every chance that Johnson will see the sense in taking Scotland seriously or at the very least delegating responsibility for change to someone who can.

What then for chances of another indyref? I very much doubt he would be bumped into another referendum against his will, if only because he knows from his own experience how skilled campaigners can run amok in the pursuit of constitutional change. No, the SNP would be left with a resurgent Tory party, having delivered a Brexit, able to build on the inroads Ruth Davidson had made on its share of the vote up to the 2017 election.?

Of course this is all ‘what if’ stuff and some will view it as fanciful stuff as well. I counter them with the fact that Boris Johnson is the very emblem of an unpredictable force in uncertain times. He may surprise us yet.

Peter Smyth
Director of Public Affairs