Analysis: Inside the inner workings of the Union Unit - what does the body actually do?

In July 2019, Boris Johnson gave himself the title “minister for the union”, promising to strengthen the bonds of the United Kingdom. But up until March last year, the team dedicated to this was just one special adviser with a part-time official, known as the ‘Union Unit’.

Mr Lewis will now lead the Constitution and Union Unit, to give it its full name, whose brief is to develop policies which help strengthen the UK and keep the entire country in mind across Government departments.
Mr Lewis will now lead the Constitution and Union Unit, to give it its full name, whose brief is to develop policies which help strengthen the UK and keep the entire country in mind across Government departments.

The unit, at the time of writing, would have no substitutes if it fielded a five-a-side team.

This, of course, no longer includes Luke Graham, with the former Ochil and South Perthshire MP ousted earlier this month .

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First his departure leaked, with Number 10 refusing to comment. The next day the Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton suggested reports of his departure were greatly exaggerated, and he was a “very, very, very valued member of the team”.

Luke Graham - UK Parliament official portrait

Less than 48 hours later he was gone, leaving the Downing Street based unit devoid of any Scots.

His exit has huge significance for the Prime Minister, who has now appointed Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave protégé of Dominic Cummings, in an attempt to find anything that can derail the ever growing support for independence.

Mr Lewis will now lead the Constitution and Union Unit, to give it its full name. Set up shortly after Boris Johnson’s leadership win in July 2019, the unit’s brief is to develop policies which help strengthen the UK and keep the entire country in mind across government departments.

Last week, the SNP accused the UK Government of allowing a ‘Vote Leave’ takeover of the unit, but insiders believe this is not something that will guide the approach.

A policeman stands in front of 10 Downing street as bunting covers the facade in central London.

It is important to note this is not about elections and the unit will have no involvement in the Scottish elections.

A UK Government source explained: “It’s not about the short term of this May’s elections, but looking ahead to strengthening the Union by underlining the importance of the NHS and our interwoven economies to all parts of the UK.

"The Union Unit will be ramping up in size and effort, making the case for the UK Government’s crucial importance to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Recovering from the pandemic will be the constant focus.”

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Meeting daily with UK Government ministers, one of the unit’s key problems is when it does work on policies aimed at benefiting Scotland, it struggles to convey that benefit.

The Union Unit was key to the delivery of the controversial Internal Market Bill, developing it from policy workshops to the finished legislation, including spending powers.

Officials felt it represented a huge step, with the UK Government now able to directly support businesses and infrastructure in Scotland, with some of the money coming on top of that already set aside under the Barnett formula.

Instead the SNP labelled it a “Tory power grab bill that represents the biggest threat to devolution in decades”. The project was tarnished further by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis telling the Commons it would "break international law in a specific, but limited way".

The unit has also worked on the Turing scheme, which will replace Erasmus. Despite being an evidently internationalist policy, and one that vows to do more for those from working-class backgrounds, it has been roundly dismissed by opposition parties before it has even opened due to its association with Brexit. Wales and Scotland are now trying rejoin Erasmus.

With the Cabinet Office, they helped set up the Union Policy Implementation Committee, chaired by Michael Gove, aimed at getting the Secretary of State’s to drive Union policy across the Government.

They’ve also undertaken a review of the Common Frameworks model and helped co-ordinate the Covid response. Other areas include focusing on ideas for specific parts of Scotland or the other devolved administrations – it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Such work is the equivalent of quietly tidying in the background. It’s well-intentioned and can make things better, but nobody is rushing to celebrate it.

All achieved with a skeleton crew, Mr Lewis will now enjoy a rapid expansion of the unit, with job adverts for four new roles already live, and aspirations for it to reach up to 30 people.

Adding workers to focus on the Union should be a sign of the UK Government’s intent and will to focus on the devolved administrations, but job adverts for high-profile civil service roles have so far landed poorly.

In a decision that was seized on by the SNP and other opposition parties, the advert stated that knowledge of Scottish politics was “desirable” rather than essential.

But what will those joining the unit be doing? The goal is on finding out what matters and what sells the Union to Scots and making sure that is not just at the heart of the UK Government, but repeatedly stressing that is the case.

Areas expected to become the focus are things such as the NHS, infrastructure through the Union Connectivity Review, as well as what role Westminster plays in the country’s economic recovery.

A UK Government source explained focusing on boosting the Union had become a bigger priority across government departments.

They said: “There is no question that strengthening the UK has moved up the agenda right across Whitehall and that is reflected in activity behind the scenes.

“But ultimately, the case for the Union will be made most effectively by the UK Government delivering for the people of Scotland.”

They pointed to a £1.5 billion city and growth deal programme that will create tens of thousands of jobs across Scotland, a new Freeport in Scotland, and the redistribution of funds that would previously have gone on EU projects.

The Minister for the Union faces his brief becoming significantly smaller if the SNP's ambition of Scotland achieving independence is realised.

The Union Unit needs to deliver for Scotland on its brief now and convince the public of it. Failing to do so could see Mr Johnson follow former prime minister David Cameron in being defined by a referendum defeat.

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