One can only imagine the glee with which the news of Boris Johnson’s foray to Moray last week must have been received within SNP HQ. And the dismay it must have brought to those Scottish Tories whose resurgence, under Ruth Davidson, was built on putting distance between themselves and their self-seeking southern brethren.
After all, it had played well for the SNP last time round. Those wonderful shots of the FM giving the PM the evil eye and batting away his hand away dismissively as he tried to usher her into her own official residence; while the booing crowds outside provided plenty of opportunities for derision. There’s nothing like having Tory condescension rubbed in your face to consolidate support for a second indyref.
Johnson’s shore-up-the-Leave-Vote trip to Douglas Ross’s constituency offered double the potential for gaffery. Ross, who supported Remain, achieved an astonishing feat when he overturned Angus Robertson’s 9,000-strong majority in the 2017 election, but his tenure as MP has not been unchequered.
There was the controversy around his decision to continue as an assistant referee, which meant he was running the line at Camp Nou when he should have been debating universal credit.
And when it comes to casual racism, he can give the Tory leader a run for his money. Johnson’s letter box comments about Muslim women were deeply offensive. But in a hold-my-beer moment Ross cited the cracking down on gypsies as his Number One priority were he to become Prime Minister. With objectives like that, it’s surprising he didn’t put himself forward as a leadership candidate.
Johnson chose Moray for his visit because, although every local authority in Scotland backed remain, Moray – with its RAF base and depleted fishing industry – had the highest Brexit vote in the country.
His visit was presaged by a start to the Conservative election campaign so shockingly awful that Jacob Rees-Mogg telling the relatives of the Grenfell fire disaster their dead relatives brought it on themselves was seized on as a welcome distraction.
By the time he set off, the party was one candidate – Welsh secretary Alun Cairns – down with another – Nick Conrad – to follow. Cairns went because it emerged his former aide had sabotaged a rape trial, Conrad because he once said women should “keep their knickers on” to avoid sexual assault. They sure as hell know how to pull in the female vote, these Tory boys.
On her breakfast show, Kay Burley empty-chaired party chairman James Cleverly after he refused to participate in a pre-arranged interview. Though it was excruciating, it is not overly harsh to suggest he still made a better impression than if he’d actually been there. While poor David Mundell – a man so comprehensively shat on by his own party he ought to stick an engaged sign on his head – struggled gamely through an interview, in which he was expected to defend or excuse every calamity the party had experienced in the previous 72 hours.
No sooner had he crossed the border, than Johnson was playing into the SNP’s hands. On a visit to a whisky distillery – and how that idea must have stretched the Tory press office’s imagination – he pledged to preserve “our fantastic Union” before going on to insist neither an SNP victory in the forthcoming general election nor an SNP victory in the next Holyrood elections would be accepted as a mandate for a second indyref. Indeed there would appear to be no circumstances in which he would countenance granting a Section 30 order. I suspect he would rather die in a ditch.
This bluster will appeal, no doubt, to those to whom a second referendum is anathema and – if adhered to – could cause long-term problems for Nicola Sturgeon, who has promised one in 2020. But Johnson has broken such blanket promises many times before. He shows no signs of feeling any affinity with Scotland or its people. And, in the short-term, there is nothing that puts soft Yes voters more in touch with their inner nationalist than some arrogant buffoon laying down the law on their country’s future.
Of course, Johnson wouldn’t have any idea how those people feel because talking to ordinary members of the public is beneath him. Asked if he ever spoke to Scottish voters he said “loads of times”, but couldn’t give specifics. Then he pointed to Guardian Scotland correspondent Libby Brooks and said: “You’re a voter.” The fact he neither understands nor cares what we think is one of many reasons he does not deserve to win and should never lead a government.
Even viewed from a Tory perspective his high-handedness seems counter-productive. If you think of the SNP as a party of grievance, why hand it another legitimate injustice to add to its jeremiad?
His behaviour was hugely helpful to Kirstene Hair, the Tory MP for Angus, who was the last candidate to step back when the party was looking for volunteers to appear on last week’s BBC Question Time.
It allowed fellow panellist Angela Haggerty to warn Hair that Johnson was taking her beloved Union down a very dangerous path, and meant that when Hair insisted Johnson cared about Scotland she was met with loud guffaws. She should have understood that the fact she was on the panel negated her claim. If the Tory party cared so much about Scotland it would have sent someone with more clout and gravitas to field the flak.
Luckily for the Conservatives, while Johnson was busy consolidating SNP votes, newly ex members of the Labour party were busy bolstering Tory chances.
Tom Watson stood down as deputy leader and MP for West Bromwich East though he is at least is not actively campaigning against his own party. Three others – Ian Austin, John Woodcock and Tom Harris – urged their supporters to vote Tory, saying Corbyn was too “extremist” to lead the country. And you know up to a point, fair enough. Labour has its anti-Semitism problem. Corbyn has done nothing to tackle it. He is not someone I would want to see as Prime Minister.
But we live in strange times. The alternative is Johnson – a racist and a liar; a man who lacks the rigour to get to grips with his own Brexit deal, as his incoherent rant about borders and tariffs in Northern Ireland demonstrated.
Former Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm understands this. He is a moderate politician, who abhors racism and is unlikely to endorse extremism in any form. But last week he tweeted this. “In this election I’ll be promoting Labour policies while attacking Conservative ones rather than opposition parties. I want a Labour Government but the bottom line is removing Johnson from power and if that requires tactical voting where there’s a clear two-horse race then so be it.” That’s the spirit in which voters should approach the ballot box.
If the choice is between two evils, I choose the lesser one. Let’s focus on getting Johnson out. The rest can be sorted out when he has gone.