Chancellor Rishi Sunak has spoken out against plans for a second Scottish independence referendum, warning it would “needlessly divide” the country at the “worst possible time”.
Instead he insisted it was “vital” for the UK to “stick together” and focus on tackling coronavirus and the recovery from the pandemic.
He also argued that Scotland was a “stronger nation” because it was part of the United Kingdom.
The Chancellor spoke out ahead of Thursday’s Holyrood elections, where the SNP and Greens are pushing for a second referendum to be held if Scots elect a majority of independence-supporting MSPs.
The campaign has also seen former first minister Alex Salmond return to the political front line, as the leader of the new Alba Party, campaigning for a “supermajority” for independence.
But Mr Sunak said: “The last 12 months has shown that in the darkest of moments, all four nations of the United Kingdom benefit from each other and our partnership.
“The undeniable truth is that Scotland is a stronger nation because it is part of a United Kingdom.”
The Tory Chancellor told voters: “In this Scottish Parliament election, if you want to get your political leaders focused on the things that matter to you and your family, then you need to use your peach party list vote for the Scottish Conservatives.”
Mr Sunak stressed that throughout the coronavirus crisis his “number one priority” had been to “protect and support as many jobs as possible”.
The Chancellor said: “Our furlough and self-employed income support schemes have together protected over one million Scottish jobs.
“The UK Government is spending over £400 billion to support our country through this pandemic. And now our world-leading vaccination scheme is delivering a path out of this pandemic and a return to normality for the whole of our country.”
He continued: “It is vital, for the whole United Kingdom, that we continue to stick together, finish the job of getting through this health crisis, move onto the task of rebuilding our economy and build a better country for future generations.”
Mr Sunak said there was “one clear risk to this shared goal”, adding that this was “the uncertainty of a second independence referendum”.
Speaking about the prospect of a second independence vote, the senior Tory said: “It would needlessly divide our country and at the worst possible time.
“Instead, we should be focused on the job prospects of young people in Scotland, they have borne the economic brunt and need the most support.
“We should be focused on the quality of healthcare and education in Scotland, because you can’t have a strong economy without a healthy and high-skilled population.
“And we need to focus on making our streets safer, protecting people and communities from crime.”
SNP depute leader Keith Brown responded, saying: “The SNP is focused on steering Scotland through the pandemic and into our recovery. As we do so we will be faced with a question of who we want leading that recovery.
“We cannot trust the Tories to do the right thing for the Scottish economy. Rishi Sunak has already set out his post-Covid Budget which will see a return to crippling Tory austerity.
“Scotland suffered 10 years of Tory cuts, which plunged thousands into poverty and forced families to use food banks just to ensure they could put food on the table. We cannot afford to return to another decade of austerity.”
Mr Brown also claimed: “No one will forget the insulting attitude the Chancellor took when it came to the needs of Scotland’s workforce, refusing for weeks to extend furlough when we needed it, only to do it immediately when it was required in England.
“In that one action he showed that the Tories will always put the needs of Scotland last.
“As we look towards our recovery, returning to austerity does not have to be the only way. We cannot trust the Tories to keep Scotland safe and make the decisions that best suit the people of Scotland.
“In just three days, the people of Scotland will have a choice, whether to put our recovery into an austerity-obsessed Tory government or into our own hands by re-electing Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister.”