Tory candidates clash over Barnett formula and the Union

Scotland moved to the centre of the Tory leadership contest as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt clashed over how they would defend the Union while delivering Brexit.
Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson. Picture: PA WireConservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson. Picture: PA Wire
Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson. Picture: PA Wire

Mr Johnson said he would take on the responsibility of being ‘Minster for the Union’ if he becomes the next Tory leader and Prime Minister, vetting every government decision to ensure it works for all nations of the UK.

The frontrunner in the leadership race, who is battling with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to replace Theresa May, said he would do anything in his power to stop independence, including launching a new unit in Downing Street to “sense test and stress test every policy” for its impact on the Union.

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The Johnson campaign was also pressed into a commitment to retain the Barnett formula after being challenged over the former London Mayor’s previous hostile comments about the process that determines how much Scotland receives in public spending from Westminster.

As well as coming under attack from the SNP, Mr Johnson faced pressure from the Scottish Conservatives, with a spokesman saying the formula “works for Scotland and works for the UK”, adding: “Any candidate must commit to it or set out a very detailed plan for an upgrade”.

The SNP accused Mr Johnson of “gimmicks” and said the Conservative government was “plotting” to use Brexit as an opportunity to impose further cuts on the Scottish budget.

A spokesperson for Mr Hunt said: “The Barnett formula is essential to protect Scotland’s public services. That’s why a government run by Jeremy would maintain it, to help ensure Scotland’s schools and hospitals get the funding they need.”

Borders MP John Lamont, who is running Mr Hunt’s campaign in Scotland, said support for the Barnett formula “shouldn’t even be a difficult question”.

“There is no case for scrapping the Barnett formula,” Mr Lamont said. “The only other people who want to get rid of it are the SNP by dividing the UK.”

A source close to the Johnson campaign later said he had no plans to change the formula.

Mr Hunt also came under pressure over his willingness to proceed with a no-deal Brexit, despite having said he put the Union ahead of leaving the EU. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Mr Hunt insisted that delivering Brexit and protecting the Union were “compatible”.

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Writing in The Scotsman today, Douglas Ross, Conservative MP for Moray, said that Mr Johnson was “passionate” for Scotland to “grow and prosper” and that he understood “the political sensitivities” of the country.

Mr Johnson’s comments on the Union came before a hustings he is due to attend in Scotland this week, when his attitude to the Barnett formula will come under the spotlight, and as a Panelbase poll revealed that opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum in the near future was reducing. Polls have also suggested most Scots would vote to leave the UK if Mr Johnson became prime minister. He has a personal approval rating in Scotland of minus 37.

Mr Johnson has previously said the Barnett formula was “deeply inequitable” and was a “system of amazing political antiquity by which the English taxpayer sends about £20 billion every year to Scotland as a kind of present”.

He has also said that a pound spent in Croydon was worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde in terms of economic generation, and that more jobs would be created in Scotland by investing in London, adding “if it causes Celtic wailing then I’m willing to go there and make the case that it’s right for them too”.

Yesterday the SNP demanded the Tories immediately rule out widescale funding cuts for public services in Scotland.

SNP MSP Tom Arthur said: “It is outrageous that the Tories are now plotting to use Brexit as an opportunity to railroad systematic cuts to Scotland’s budget – offering a grim insight into what Scotland can expect from the next Tory prime minister.

“The Tories have longed for the opportunity to hammer Scotland’s budget for years – but the people of Scotland won’t stand by while Westminster politicians plot to cut money from our vital public services to fund their disastrous no-deal Brexit.

“Yet again the mask has slipped and fatally undermined the Tories’ attempts to portray themselves as working in Scotland’s best interests.”

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He added: “Boris Johnson’s latest scheme to appoint the next Tory leader as Minister of the Union is simply laughable – voters will see this meaningless gimmick for what it is.”

However, a source close to Mr Johnson’s campaign hit back, saying: “There’ll be no change to the Barnett formula if Boris wins the leadership of the 
Conservative and Unionist Party and becomes Prime Minister.

“For the SNP to suggest otherwise shows a hitherto unseen level of desperation and underlines just how much they would fear a Conservative and Unionist Party led by Boris.”

In his interview Mr Johnson insisted he was prepared to borrow to finance “great objectives” at the same time as 
cutting taxes if he succeeds Theresa May, stressing he would “keep fiscal responsibility”.

On proroguing Parliament to push through Brexit, Mr Johnson said he did not want to do it nor expected to – but kept the option on the table.

Yesterday Mr Hunt also said he would be prepared to pursue “with a heavy heart” a no-deal Brexit despite the risks to business and said some of his spending pledges would be delayed as a result, although he would push on with a cut to corporation tax.

Mr Hunt sought to maintain a tough-sounding approach to Brexit, including a warning he could refuse to pay part of Britain’s £39 billion exit bill to the EU if negotiations fail, while repeating that he believes he can secure a deal.

Mrs May criticised Mr Johnson’s “do-or-die” attitude to the Brexit deadline.