Boris Johnson has vowed to deliver a “pent-up tidal wave of opportunity and investment” to support Scotland’s recovery from coronavirus as he hit out at the SNP’s “obsession” with holding a new independence referendum.
Addressing the Scottish Conservative’s spring conference on Sunday, the prime minister spoke of his “love” for Scotland and expressed his desire for all Scots “to share in, to be part of, and to drive our UK recovery”.
Mr Johnson is understood to be finalising plans for a wave of spending by the UK Government in Scotland to bolster support for the union as part of a strategy to get ahead of a predicted SNP majority in May and calls for a new vote on separation.
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, has claimed a second referendum could be staged “as early as late 2021” if the party wins the Holyrood election.
But a Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times found just a quarter of Scots want an independence vote in the next 12 months, with 30% backing a referendum in the next two to five years, and 45% saying there should not be one at all in the next few years.
Two recent polls have shown support for separation falling behind, while the Panelbase poll found opinion resting on a knife-edge, with 46% of Scots in favour of independence and 47% against – an even 50-50 split when ‘don’t knows’ are excluded.
Speaking at the conference, Mr Johnson described the coronavirus vaccine rollout, which has so far seen more than 1.8 million people in Scotland receive a jab, as an “incredible achievement” that has “brought our country together”.
A political fight
He said the effort had “shown the brilliance of every part of our union”, including the use of cutting-edge technology and science in Scotland “which is helping to power the UK’s battle against coronavirus”.
“I just find it incredible then that the SNP would choose this moment to again push their campaign for separation,” Mr Johnson said.
“Just when everything is beginning to reopen again, when we will soon be reunited with our friends and family, the SNP think that this is the time to turn us all against one another. To start another political fight.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: it is their party’s obsession. Yet surely even they have a sense of priority, of what is important right now?”
A collective effort
The prime minister said the UK Government has “huge plans” to level up every part of the UK and back the creation of good jobs in every part of Scotland.
“There is a pent-up tidal wave of opportunity and investment ready to flow into Scotland to support your recovery from coronavirus,” he said. “And I want all Scots to share in, to be a part of, and to drive our UK recovery.
“It is this great task that we will all need to be focused on, as we emerge from this pandemic. A collective effort that will require the efforts and strengths of every part of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Johnson claimed the SNP is “intent on pushing for a referendum, regardless of the cost to Scotland and the whole of the UK” and said this is the “last thing” Scots need.
He said only the Scottish Conservatives can block an SNP majority in May and said this, coupled with securing Scotland and the UK’s recovery from coronavirus, should be the party’s goal ahead of the Scottish Parliament election.
‘Old divisive arguments’
But Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said Mr Johnson and the Conservatives “want to take us back to the old divisive arguments”.
He said: “They want us to argue with each other rather than focus on the priorities of the Scottish people – creating jobs, a comeback plan for education and rebuilding our NHS.”
Speaking later, chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted Scotland will play an important role in the UK’s recovery from coronavirus.
He said: “Through investing £34 million into the north-east economy to support the transition to green technology and make Aberdeen the world leader in subsea engineering, freezing alcohol duties – benefitting your national drink, Scotch whisky, and the 11,000 jobs it supports, accelerating Growth Deals in Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute and Falkirk, and freezing fuel duty for the eleventh year in a row, saving the average Scottish driver £1,600.
“This is just the start of my plan to rebuild the economy of Scotland and the whole of the UK. We can recover from the devastating impact of coronavirus. We can level up and spread opportunity to every part of our country.”