How Boris can manage his Scotland problem

The night was nothing to do with Boris and all about him.

It was the 2016 Conservative Party conference in Birmingham and in a dark suite hung with tasteful low lights the cream of British right-wingery had gathered for the Spectator’s champagne reception.

The annual booze bash is the most sought-after ticket at Tory conference, as much for the free-flowing Bollinger as for the unfettered access to well-primed Cabinet ministers. In a corner, I nestled among a cooch of liberal cuckoos pecking at hors d’oeuvres and clocking the arrivals, each more outlandishly right-wing than the last, until it was something of an anti-climax when General Pinochet failed to make an appearance.

There wasn’t a word about the Prime Minister, who had just given a resolute speech and was polling in the stratosphere. All talk was of Boris. Where was he? Was he coming? Who had seen his speech? How long before he replaced her? Political editors glanced past tipsy, loose-lipped ministers towards the entrance, perking up at every movement, then sighing as the parliamentary under-secretary for paper clips trundled in.

Two hours later, the doors flew open and a wall of silk and polyester stormed in: the Foreign Secretary, flanked by bodyguards, briskly marched from one important attendee to the next, each accorded a minute of chortling anecdote. His feet scarcely touched the floor, though one of his close protection officers trampled my toes as he barrelled not past but through me, the Glock 17 riding on his hip imparting a farewell jab in the ribs.

Then, he was gone, faster than the bubbles in the fizz, but the room, at least half of whom privately despise him, continued to sway to a gauzy rhythm, not quite of admiration but of anxious thrill.

This is the peculiar magic of Boris Johnson. He is the high-wire act you just can’t look away from, the insouciant schoolboy who waits till the last second to plant the whoopee cushion on the schoolmaster’s chair. It’s all an act but one pulled off with flashes of brilliance and flashes of folly — and just the faintest flicker of menace. His charms leave me cold but I cannot deny they bewitch others.

Now Johnson is the presumptive favourite to win the Tory leadership, after burying his rivals in the first round of voting. Precious little of this momentum comes from Scotland, where only two MPs have endorsed him and party insiders increasingly view his victory with grim resignation. That might be a touch premature but their concerns are rational.

I’m told Johnson feels ‘misunderstood’ by the Scots. He wouldn’t be the first Conservative leader to find himself in that position. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, musing on Scottish antipathy towards Margaret Thatcher, concluded: ‘She was a woman, an English woman and a bossy English woman’.

Johnson has the potential to inspire just as much hostility since he is, or presents as, a clown, an English clown and a privileged English clown. He rankles the dour remnants of Calvinism in the national psyche that see an educated man playing the fool and reach for a favourite word of stern Scottish grannies: gowk.

Johnson is a gowk but he is also misunderstood. Labour and sections of the media are already trying to portray him as a reactionary. In fact, he is a patrician pretending to be a populist so he can lead a party of Faragists who still think they’re Tories.

His pledge to leave the EU by October 31, without a deal if necessary, is the sort of tactical pandering in which he is skilled. He will happily tell any audience what it wants to hear: Londoners got the gay-friendly tree-hugger, Telegraph readers the High Tory harrumpher, and Brexiteers the Britannic buccaneer.

He is flexible and this flexibility Scottish Tories can turn to their advantage. The Boris problem can be managed from a catastrophe down to a challenge, but only if he and his leader in Scotland are willing to work together. Ruth Davidson and Johnson famously do not get on and that distance can help as well as hinder a relationship.

If he does become leader, Johnson will quickly learn that his mandate is a shared one north of the Border, where Davidson calls the shots and jealously guards her power base. The playing fields of Eton may make one frightfully brave but Buckhaven High is where you learn to give someone a proper doing.

Johnson’s first task will be to choke down a generous helping of humble pie and admit that he needs her help. Davidson understands Scotland’s political topography, the bumps and the pitfalls and how to navigate both. Strong communication, honest discussion and a willingness to listen could save him many a stumble. There can be no surprises and no assumptions. The SNP is more than capable of making its own mischief; it requires no help from Tories distracted by turf wars or ego matches.

The talk of the steamie is that Johnson would replace David Mundell as Secretary of State, possibly with Colin Clark, the Boris-backing MP who toppled Alex Salmond in Gordon. Every prime minister must choose the team he is most comfortable with but hark on this: Mundell is the longest-serving Scottish Secretary since Lord Lang and his party’s spokesman on Scotland since 2005. He was there for the coming of the SNP and the going of Blair, the Coalition years and the bitter independence battle. Experience and institutional knowledge should not be forgone lightly.

Cautious language is vital to sound strategy. Johnson should concentrate his firepower on the SNP generally and allow Davidson to handle the bulk of attacks on Nicola Sturgeon to avoid charges of bullying or misogyny. He should not repeat the mistake of Sajid Javid in announcing that he would not ‘allow’ a second independence referendum.

Instead, he should promise to stick up for the majority of Scots who don’t want another vote any time soon. ‘I’ll get the SNP off your back’ can’t be quite so easily spun by the Nationalist grievance machine.

Over time, Mrs Thatcher learned to ration her ventures north of the Border and this might prove the most sensible approach for Johnson but he shouldn’t be frightened off initially. There will be some Scots, although distinctly a minority, who favour his Devil-may-care, PC-be-damned schtick. Maybe even a few of those Leave-voting SNP supporters will want to hear what he has to say. At least Johnson would acknowledge their existence, something Sturgeon blank refuses to do.

There is also something to be said for a speech describing his perspective on the Union. His undoubted oratorical skills are far superior to anyone in that den of lumpen mediocrity at the foot of the Royal Mile. Let him sing a little and see what the punters make of the lyric. They might be unmoved or they might give him some grudging credit: fair play to the bloke, if it’s what he believes.

Scots may never warm to Johnson but a transactional relationship is possible, with a message that appeals to the constitutional and political middle ground: ‘I’ll keep the Union together, Corbyn out of Downing Street, and my nose out of everything else’. It’s hardly stirring stuff but it would put Johnson’s flexibility to good use and keep ructions to a minimum.

If he decides to heed the Scottish Tory MPs calling for Westminster to invest directly in Scotland, thus bypassing Airmiles Nicola and the junket jet-setters, he should make clear that the Scotland Office will have the main say in where the money is spent. If the SNP want to carp — and they will — let them explain why Scotland should go without. ‘Nat Tax’ has a certain ring to it.

Boris might yet manage to blow his chances, and that would be the best outcome for the Scottish Tories and supporters of the Union. His arrival in Number 10, while far from ideal, need not be a cataclysm but that is largely up to Boris. There is an especially rare strain of political sorcery he will have to summon: humility.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).

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