Is Boris considering a snap poll on independence with the date, question(s) and eligibility decided by himself?

From the perspective of Downing Street, it must look like an extremely cunning wheeze positioning the Prime Minister as fearless in the face of Britain’s last effective source of opposition – a man determined to "get the job done" on favourable terms for the status quo.

A snap poll would craftily accept the mandate Nicola Sturgeon will likely gain in 10 days, but then wrongfoot the cautious SNP leader who is gearing up for another poll in 2023.


And popular with exasperated Tory MPs.

One anonymous UK Cabinet minister recently told the Sunday Times: “I don’t see how we keep saying no forever. The time to do [Indyref2] would be in the middle of economic chaos, not when it’s all looking rosy.”

The New Statesman reported similar levels of impatience from a Tory Holyrood candidate: “I’m coming round to Indyref2 immediately. Short and sharp. Twelve months to decide. Either way.”

If the choice is between now and later, then now might indeed be the best time for unionism. Waiting for Indyref2 only shifts the demographic odds further in the SNP’s favour. Besides the opinion polls have slipped back to "just" 50 per cent support for Yes and Alex Salmond’s intervention with Alba might complicate another independence campaign.

There may be a mood of guarded optimism as lockdown eases, but there’s uncertainty about the economy, worry about children’s education and mental health and many voters face unemployment.

The polls seem to reflect that – a third of Scots want a referendum by 2023 – but more favour 2026 and beyond. By quickening the prospect of change, Boris may believe he can frighten voters and close down independence in Scotland as quickly as he closed down the Remain cause in England after Brexit. Tory Brexiteers doubtless believe that "taking the bull by the horns" worked once and could easily work again.

And then there is the logic of their own election campaign.

Claiming Indyref2 can only be halted by a Conservative victory rather invites the conclusion that the vote is likely go ahead if the Tories lose. This is the weakest argument, based upon expectations of consistency in politics and the existence of a moral compass at Number Ten.

It would be much simpler for Boris Johnson to keep saying No and force the SNP into a plebiscite which he can condemn as "a Catalan-style wildcat poll". But, with no armed police ready to move in and close down the ballot, the process might actually work quite well and the result might easily go the "wrong way". Worse, it wouldn’t end the problem but would revitalise Yessers and focus international attention on Westminster’s churlish refusal to provide a lawful channel for Scottish self-determination.

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Getting his retaliation in first with a rigged snap poll, would see Boris Johnson join a long, proud Downing Street tradition of deflecting democratic challenge with a less than appealing solution that divides and disorientates critics. That strategy worked with the weak Scottish Assembly proposal in 1979, the toothless north-east assembly rejected by Geordies in 2004 and the AV referendum that divided advocates of PR in 2011.

So why not propose an indyref that’s too fixed to be fair but too tempting for Yessers to ignore?

Boris could ignore the advice for a precise rerun of 2014 by Ciaran Martin, architect of the Edinburgh Agreement, and present Scots instead with a "London-made" referendum, replacing the classic understandings of "Yes and No", with a confusing Leave/Remain question, inserting a confusing third option, requiring a confirmatory vote once negotiations are complete and excluding EU citizens, now almost guaranteed to vote Yes.

It’s high-risk stuff but we’re told that’s what Boris does best. Could it work?

Sure, if Tory meltdown and political uproar are the desired outcomes.

The idea Boris Johnson could run a gerrymandered Indyref2 in Scotland from the distant safety of Downing Street is absolutely laughable. The man has no mandate, and his popularity in Scotland is so low, election trips have been banned.

Nothing would more quickly unite the slightly fractious Yes movement, more powerfully demonstrate why Scotland needs out of the Union, create a better recruiting sergeant for the SNP or give Nicola Sturgeon more moral authority as the world looks on.

Indeed, if Boris Johnson chances his arm, Nicola Sturgeon might discover some unlikely allies. The STUC recently reaffirmed its backing for a Scottish-run Indyref2, so union members might consider boycotting the administration of a Boris-led alternative.

Comments by Anas Sarwar suggest Scottish Labour might be ready to change tack if the SNP wins in May, accepting the democratic case for a second "Scotland-made" referendum and getting in fast to claim the position of progressive saviour of the Union. That will not satisfy the substantial Yes wing in his own party but could be portrayed as an honest position within a fair contest. Sarwar would invite Better Together levels of criticism and vitriol if he backed a stitch-up poll by the Tories.

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But if it went ahead, at Johnson’s behest in less than a generation and during a pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon’s timing worries and the leadership of Douglas Ross would both be over. Since Johnson has difficulty remembering the Scottish Tory leader by name, that might seem small beer. But a snap poll would also weaken the biggest barrier facing independence – the reluctance of voters to accept the big moment of constitutional decision has finally arrived.

Meanwhile, Boris may be out of step with his own electorate. Last week, Ipsos Mori found 51 per cent of British voters think Sturgeon should be allowed to stage a fresh referendum if she wins a majority in May – polls also suggest she’s a more popular leader than Johnson and Keir Starmer.

Finally, though David Cameron isn’t a credible figure these days, his reason for choosing a "Scotland-made" indyref in 2014 still stands. Anything else just builds a stronger case for independence in the long term.

So, if the Prime Minister is foolish enough to be considering his own snap indyref – a word of caution.

Nothing is more guaranteed to backfire.

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