IT must have felt to Boris Johnson yesterday like his toughest ever canvassing gig, coming to Scotland.

If Scotland were a voter, she was standing on her doorstep, mouth set firm, arms crossed, staring disconcertingly into his soul. “You don’t impress us much,” was her withering message. It hardly matters what the Prime Minister says any more: when it comes to Scotland, the problem for Boris, is Boris.

Just about anyone with a feeling for Scotland could have told Conservative MPs this before they cravenly elected him last summer against their own better judgment, and in fact nearly everyone did. Alarmed Scottish Tories had even launched a campaign, Operation Arse, to prevent it. They could see only too clearly that a far greater ignominy than losing the election awaited if Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

So what, if anything, can the UK Government do to prevent what is starting to feel like a yearning among Scots to get out of the Union?

The coming year will create conditions that could barely be less auspicious for them, with the reality of Brexit looming in January. And not just Brexit, but the real possibility of a chaotic no-deal Brexit, for pity’s sake. (Mr Johnson’s grinning face is all over this issue, of course, like fingerprints on a crime scene.) It will come just in time for (another) wave of redundancies as the Chancellor’s Jobs Retention Bonus Scheme draws to a close. We simply don’t know how many million unemployed there will be by then.

Four months later, Scotland goes to the polls in the Holyrood election.

To have even a chance of staunching the outflow of support, the UK Government will have to do three things.

First, on Brexit, it will need to prioritise damage limitation, which means achieving the closest possible relationship with Brussels, abandoning red lines to do so. There would be Brexiter apoplexy, of course, with Steve Baker short circuiting and Mark Francois raising a militia to march on Downing Street, but ministers need to ask themselves what’s worse: facing down the Brexit ultras or sitting with Huw Edwards in a TV studio on the night of a second independence referendum, explaining how they accidentally lost Scotland.

Secondly, the UK Government needs to try and drag the debate away from the democratic deficit Scotland faces, and onto the economic benefits of the Union. This was Mr Johnson’s aim yesterday, reminding Scots that the UK’s borrowing power has supported 900,000 jobs north of the Border with the furlough scheme.

It must be said that talking about the economy is by no means an unambiguous positive for the UK Government, which by the time of any referendum will be dealing with the potentially dire effects of Brexit on investment levels and trade.

But the economics of independence are difficult for the SNP too. Scotland would face a budget deficit and thorny questions about its currency arrangements; in 2014, the SNP’s economic blueprint was supported by oil money, but the fountain has all but run dry.

The UK, post Covid, is now saddled with a huge new debt, but a proportion of it would be inherited by the brand new Scottish nation (it’s unrealistic to imagine Scotland could walk away from it).

The most important point for the UK Government to grasp, however, is the need for humility and respect in its dealings with Scotland. In the last decade, Scotland has been treated by Downing Street like a problem to be managed, with ministers typically showing up, like Mr Johnson yesterday or David Cameron in 2014, to soothe and placate before returning to business as usual.

SNP ministers are tediously pantomimish at times in their dealings with the UK Government, but underneath that performance is a genuine problem: that Holyrood seems to be viewed from Westminster, not as the parliament of a confident nation in its own right and the equal of Westminster – as many Scots now see it – but as a tiresome junior partner with delusions of grandeur.

This has to change. It simply isn’t enough to fly up to a rural constituency, tickle some lobsters and bluster weakly about the Scottish people wanting to move on from the independence question. Clearly they don’t.

If UK ministers are to have a hope of putting up a fight in a second independence referendum, they must show they understand why the status quo isn’t working. They must show that they get Scots’ frustration at having a Tory Government, again, that they didn’t vote for; a Prime Minister, in Boris Johnson, that they don’t rate; and a constitutional change, Brexit, foisted upon them. The UK Government must start a conversation about federalism in all parts of the UK, as the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has promised, which would be open to the possibility of radical change.

How can the status of Scotland (and Wales) be better reflected? How can the concerns of those nations be better taken into account before big decisions are made? Are there other powers that could be sensibly devolved? And within England, is there an appetite for regional assemblies to boost the profile of areas outwith the south-east and counterbalance the Westminster ego? And isn’t it time to have a proper English parliament? (Mr Johnson has already mooted moving the Lords to York, and the Commons too during a parliamentary refurb: if he moved it there permanently, leaving Westminster to the English parliament, that would show a desire to break with the insular world view that is endemic in SW1.)

I’m not pretending federalism is the perfect rejoinder to arguments for independence – it isn’t – but talking about it would show a genuine desire to offer a credible alternative.

The truth is, though, that Mr Johnson is unlikely to erase his Brexit red lines or offer federalism, so Scots face a choice: do they wait for Sir Keir to win the next election, with his promise of reimagining the UK, or do they opt to go it alone?

The worry for supporters of the UK, and the opportunity for independence supporters, is that it feels as if patience is running out.

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