NO politicians like to be in the position where they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, which is unfortunate, since it’s a predicament for almost all of them at some point or another. The phrase was first used to attack the Calvinist doctrine of particular election, but it’s a booby-trap in the secular world’s sort of election, too.

So Boris Johnson discovered this week when he visited Scotland, to the professed displeasure of the SNP Government. But its stance is more like getting him coming and going: since Mr Johnson is, to put it mildly, a minority taste with Scots, the First Minister can portray his visit – like any other reminder of the existence of the UK Government – as an intrusion.

Nicola Sturgeon gets to complain about the PM’s jaunt while knowing it does her party’s prospects for the Holyrood elections no harm. The very fact that it creates a row is a boon to the SNP, since it focuses attention on the Union, rather than the party’s record in government on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, crime, transport, health and education.

Mr Johnson’s dilemma is that, as Prime Minister of the UK (and Minister for the Union, a post he gave himself) he should, of course, regularly be in various parts of Scotland – about as regularly as he should be in Glamorgan, Northumberland, Antrim or the like.

If he isn’t, unionism is undermined. The trouble is that if he is, it draws attention to unionism’s precarious position. Even those who think the arguments for the Union are overwhelming, or that polling favouring independence may be short-lived, cannot dispute that is where we now stand.

The case that the middle of a pandemic, with accompanying economic crisis, may not be the best time to revisit the independence referendum has some force, especially when the responses, such as the development and funding of vaccines, furlough and Treasury bailouts, are largely UK ones. In addition, the post-Brexit settlement may affect prospects for disentangling the UK in ways we can’t anticipate. But even many Scottish Tories think that Mr Johnson may be the last person suitable for presenting such arguments.

The SNP is entitled to continue to press its case, including challenging reserved powers, complaints about Westminster and demands for independence. But the reality is that it already has fully devolved authority over almost everything bar defence and foreign affairs – and is increasingly operating as if it had the latter. It has been in government for more than a decade; its own record on day-to-day matters that affect Scottish voters should form the chief basis of its platform for the election.

All the signs are it will win handsomely. But concentrating on the case against the Union is a distraction – and an unwelcome one at a critical time when there are grassroots policies, not least the vaccine rollout, that require urgent attention. Mr Johnson’s problem is that any attempt to make the opposite case is bound to be counterproductive, both because it draws more attention to it, and because he’s the one making it.

THE cautious approach of the Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes in laying out the Scottish Government’s budget is, however, exactly the sort of thing that might incline voters towards the SNP. While it is true that much of it will be paid for by anticipated block grants from Westminster, there were sensible and imaginative measures to aid business and individuals.

The reduction in non-domestic rates, ambition to freeze council tax and the extension of relief measures for hospitality, tourism and retail are not only welcome for those affected, but offer the best chance to spark economic recovery. And they go further than the UK government yet has.

Ms Forbes knows that she faces extraordinary financial pressures, and naturally argues she is also constrained by Westminster, but she has produced a sober and prudent programme in difficult circumstances. It demonstrated commitment towards practicalities, a solid outline for policy and a commendably competent grasp of what any Government’s priorities should be.