WHAT’S the worst that could happen? Well, it already has for many Scottish voters: Boris Johnson is almost certain to be the next Prime Minister. But there’s a lot more to this than merely installing a right-wing populist in Number 10. Already, the landscape of Scottish politics is changing. And not for the better.

Brexit always implied that the UK would become more centralised, more Unionist, more unitary. The diverse, multinational Britain that emerged after 20 years of devolution represented a potential block to the execution of the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Act. This is why the Scottish Parliament had to be curbed in the 2018 “power grab”.

Holyrood’s powers over key issues like agriculture, food standards, health and the environment posed potential regulatory blockages to future trade deals with America. Those chlorinated chickens would come home to roost – or rather they wouldn’t, if Scotland retained the ability to block them.

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More profoundly, Brexit represents a revival of British or English exceptionalism. It is a vision of Britain assuming a world role as leader of what the Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, called “the Anglosphere”, and critics dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. This harks back to the glory days, when England ruled a quarter of the planet, with Scotland as the junior partner.

The inconvenient truth that Scotland has little interest in “global Britain”, and no interest in leaving the European Union, is an obstacle to this project of British national renewal. Put simply, the Scots need to be put in their place or out the door. In the latest YouGov poll, 63 per cent of Tory members say that they would be happy to see Scotland leave the UK if that was the price of Brexit. Only 29 per cent said they did not see the Union as expendable. The Conservative and UNIONIST Party is no more.

They aren’t serious, of course, about Scottish independence. What they mean is that Scotland will have to be returned to its traditional status as an appendage of England. Scottish politicians are, in the Tory view, as troublesome as the Irish, and need to be shown a bit of tough love. We’ve seen this emerge this week, as Tory leadership candidates vie with each other to rule out a Scottish independence referendum.

“It’s a flat no,” says Michael Gove, who is likely to be Deputy Prime Minister when Mr Johnson puts his cabinet together. Jeremy Hunt, possibly the future Tory Chancellor, isn’t quite so blunt, but he says there can be no consideration of a Scottish referendum unless the SNP wins an outright majority in the Scottish parliamentary elections. He knows, and we know, that this is most unlikely because the proportional electoral system in Scotland makes majority governments almost impossible.

He has also called for a firm timetable for Scotland abandoning the pound. This is another blocking measure, since not even Mystic Meg would be able to give a precise timetable for disentangling Scotland financially from the rest of the UK – even if both sides wished it. So, it’s a no from him too, and from Sajid Javid.

To give her credit, Theresa May tacitly accepted the case for a referendum. She didn’t just say No to Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for one in 2017, but “now is not the time”. In other words, when “fog of Brexit” has cleared, there would be a legitimate case. At any rate, she agreed that the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement provided a precedent for a legally-binding referendum via the passing of a Section 30 Order by Westminster.

That was then; this is now. The default Unionism of the new leadership poses a threat to devolution, but it could be an existential one for the Scottish Government. Mr Hunt also ruled out any “wildcat referendum”, by which he means a consultative referendum of the kind widely discussed in nationalist circles. This is the UK Government going full Madrid. Like the Spanish courts, Tory leaders are effectively ruling that secession is illegal and that the Scottish Parliament has no right to mount even an advisory poll on independence.

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I don’t expect to see Ms Sturgeon and the Yes campaign leaders being sent to jail – at least not yet. But this is an important moment. Under Mr Johnson, we will not be seeing business as usual, but a tightening of the shackles of Unionism on the institutions of Scottish democracy. Britain is becoming a unitary state again, in all senses of the word.

This doesn’t, however, mean there won’t be concessions made to Scotland to sweeten the pill. Indeed, Mr Gove, who will clearly have a leading role in the Johnson Cabinet, may even propose greater powers for Holyrood – a kind of Vow 2.0. Before the referendum, when he was co-leading the Leave campaign, Mr Gove suggested that immigration could be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. He also promised greater powers over matters like fishing – an issue close to his heart since his father was a Scottish fish processor – once Scotland left the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

Mr Johnson too will be looking to secure the position of Ruth Davidson, an outspoken critic of the PM-in-waiting. He will need her 13 Tory MPs if he is to form a stable government post-Brexit. But unhelpful folk on the internet keep connecting Mr Johnson with off-colour jokes about Scots being “verminous” and in need of “extermination”. Expect much rhetoric about decentralising the UK, and promises that the powers repatriated from Brussels will eventually be returned to Holyrood. There will be City Deals and promises about infrastructure, such as broadband and 5G bringing the UK together.

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But Scotland will be in a new world. Mr Johnson will assuredly rule out any repeat referendum in as strong terms as his leadership rivals. He will up the stakes in the constitutional game and raise difficult questions for the independence movement about the way forward for Scotland. If Westminster is going to simply say no, nationalists may have to look to extra-legal means of securing Scottish independence. This is not something Scottish voters have had to consider before. But as far as Westminster is concerned, it’s no more Mr Nice Guy.