When Boris Johnson visits Scotland, there is no rule that says he must meet Nicola Sturgeon, although courtesy would probably have brought them together if the relationship were less dysfunctional. On the eve of the trip, the first minister invited the prime minister to Bute House, knowing his itinerary was fixed. She could be confident he would refuse, which he did, sending a letter of his own, urging cooperation between their administrations on Covid vaccines.
The exchange was political theatre. Ms Sturgeon wants to give the impression that Mr Johnson represents the government of a different state, and make his refusal to meet her look like a snub to all of Scotland. Mr Johnson does not want to be bounced into a summit that nationalists would treat as part of the negotiation over a second independence referendum.
His response emphasised vaccination because it is a subject that, in his view, advances the anti-independence argument. Scots are being jabbed in timely fashion, thanks to the collective purchasing power of the union and the NHS, or so the argument goes. The very fact that Mr Johnson is visiting Scotland indicates growing optimism in Downing Street that support for separation may have peaked; that Ms Sturgeon’s hand is not as strong as it seemed last year, when opinion polls looked more favourable for nationalists.
Rishi Sunak was also in Scotland last week, making a case for union with England on the grounds that it generates jobs and supports businesses. In counterattack, the SNP accused the chancellor of making redundancies more likely by prematurely ending the Treasury furlough scheme. This will be the pattern for some time as UK ministers come from Westminster, insisting that investment travels in their wake, while nationalists treat them as unwelcome emissaries from an alien regime.
Somewhere in the background the opposition is trying to elbow its way into the picture. Keir Starmer is also in Scotland this week. The Labour leader’s chosen focus, in anticipation of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in the autumn, is climate policy and what he says is Mr Johnson’s absence from the field of action.
Sir Keir also used the trip as an opportunity to rule out any future deal with the SNP, either in the run-up to an election or in the event of a hung parliament afterwards. That position is not new. That it needs restating from time to time is a sign of how tricky the issue can be for a party that has traditionally relied on Scottish constituencies to make up its governing majorities. In 2015, the Tories campaigned hard on the idea that Ed Miliband would be propped up by Scottish nationalists, and Boris Johnson will gladly repeat the trick, fomenting fear of a Labour government that would allow Ms Sturgeon to dictate terms to England.
Whether that line is even available depends on how far the SNP’s ambitions for a referendum progress in the meantime. A coalition with the Greens in Holyrood is mooted, which would formalise a pro-independence majority. But even then there are many political and legal obstacles if Mr Johnson refuses to cooperate on enabling legislation, and he shows no sign of cooperating.
Campaigning proceeds anyway, but weakly camouflaged as something else. Whether the ostensible topic is vaccines, the economy or climate, the subtext is always independence, which means issues that deserve debating on their own terms are infiltrated by a polarising question. That might be an inevitable feature of political impasse between Westminster and Holyrood, but it is an inherently unstable situation, suffused with dishonesty. Political games and stealth campaigns will not advance Mr Johnson’s cause.