Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Thursday praise the United Kingdom’s collective response to coronavirus during a trip to Scotland, in a bid to counter record support for independence.
Johnson is set to highlight the British government’s role in Scotland dealing with the pandemic, from deploying the army to help roll out vaccines to providing extra financial support.
However, polling has shown that Scots overwhelmingly think First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has done a better job at handling the crisis than Johnson.
Twenty consecutive polls have shown majority support for Scotland’s independence, and the SNP has published an 11-point “roadmap to a referendum” as well as a newly-formed “independence taskforce”.
Johnson has insisted the last independence referendum in 2014, which saw Scots back staying in the UK by 55 to 45 percent, was a once-in-a-generation vote and repeatedly rejected calls for him to allow another vote.
As well as the backdrop of the independence issue, Johnson faces another row with Sturgeon, who has questioned if his trip north of the border breaches coronavirus lockdown rules.
Sturgeon said she was “not ecstatic” about the visit, adding that leaders should stick to the same rules as the general public about making only essential journeys.
“People like me and Boris Johnson have to be in work for reasons people understand, but we don’t have to travel across the UK. We have a duty to lead by example,” she said Wednesday.
Johnson’s Downing Street office responded it was “a fundamental role of the PM to be the physical representative of the UK government” and that it was “right that he’s visible and accessible for communities and businesses and the public”.
Senior minister Michael Gove, a Scot who chairs a weekly sub-cabinet meeting on preserving the UK, added that the visit would garner valuable insight about the government’s pandemic response.
“It’s also important the prime minister hears from those on the frontline what is going well and what needs to improve,” he told Sky News.
‘Benefits of cooperation’
The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own health policies, and the pandemic has thrust local leaders and their administrations into the spotlight more than usual.
With each administration dictating their response, they have often pitted themselves against London, which sets policy for England, and provided a glimpse into how independence could operate.
Despite broadly similarly grim case counts and death tolls to the rest of Britain, Sturgeon has won praise for her handling of the crisis and performances in daily press conferences.
In contrast, Johnson has been vehemently criticised for repeatedly reacting too slowly as the crisis has evolved, and Britain now has one of the highest virus death tolls globally.
However, during his visit, Johnson will stress the UK government has provided pivotal support, in particular in emergency response and testing, alongside the vaccine drive and funding.
“The great benefits of cooperation across the whole of the UK have never been clearer than since the beginning of this pandemic,” he will say, according to his office.
But the union is also under strain in other ways.
The 2016 vote for Brexit, opposed by a majority in Scotland, has proved highly contentious north of the border, with nationalists arguing it provides the basis for another independence referendum.
Meanwhile, the SNP is predicted to win a landslide in Scottish parliament elections in May, with Sturgeon widely expected to use that to further bolster claims of a mandate for an independence vote.