Boris Johnson was in Scotland on Monday in an early bid to boost support for his premiership – but the visit exposed deep divisions with the Scottish government over no-deal Brexit and independence.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Johnson in Edinburgh, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was no clarity on how he planned to reach a new exit deal when the European Union has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate.
"That makes me think that whatever Boris Johnson might be saying publicly about his preference being to strike a deal, in reality, he is really pursuing a no-deal Brexit because that is the logic of the hardline position that he has taken," she said.
"I think that is extremely dangerous for Scotland, indeed for the whole of the UK."
Many, not only in Scotland, believe the new Johnson government’s invigorated drive to pull the UK out of the EU without an agreement may boost the campaign for Scottish independence.
Scotland rejected independence by a 55-45% majority in 2014 but then voted to stay in the EU at the 2016 Brexit referendum, fuelling calls for a second independence vote.
"It is not in my view a democratic position to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose and I made that clear to him," Sturgeon said after the meeting with Johnson.
The Scottish government will consider the timetable of its push for another vote over the summer, she said, adding:
"Obviously what happens over that period with the negotiations around Brexit will have an impact on the decision that we make."
Calls for unity
Johnson promised funding of £300m (€333m) designed to increase growth in the devolved nations, which also include Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ahead of his visit, Johnson described the four-nation union as “the most successful political and economic union in history”.
“So as we prepare for our bright future after Brexit, it’s vital we renew the ties that bind our United Kingdom”, he said.
But Johnson’s call for unity comes as divisions are exposed within the ruling Conservative Party north and south of the border.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, stated clearly at the weekend that she was opposed to a no-deal Brexit.
“When I was debating against the pro-Brexit side in 2016, I don’t remember anybody saying we should crash out of the EU with no arrangements in place to help maintain the vital trade that flows uninterrupted between Britain and the European Union,” she wrote in the Scottish Mail on Sunday.
“I don’t think the Government should pursue a No Deal Brexit and, if it comes to it, I won’t support it,” she added.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown said earlier this month that the Union was “hanging by a thread”, and that Boris Johnson risked being “the last prime minister of the UK”. He singled out the new prime minister’s unpopularity in Scotland, attacking his “anti-European conservatism, which has got no resonance in Scotland”.
A YouGov survey last week found that 65% of respondents thought that Boris Johnson would be either a “poor” or a “terrible” prime minister – well above the 50% who shared that view across the UK as a whole.
“The new Tory leader is deeply unpopular among Scots and he has proven himself to be completely unfit for office, time and again,”, Ian Blackford – leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) at Westminster – told the Daily Record last week.
“It is clear that we face the most extreme Tory Government since Thatcher,” he added. The former UK prime minister was derided in Scotland – her unpopularity exacerbated by the early introduction of the hated “poll tax”, which contributed to a collapse in Tory support north of the border that lasted for years.
Ruth Davidson and other Scottish Tories were reportedly infuriated by Johnson’s sacking of David Mundell as Scottish secretary in his cabinet reshuffle upon taking office.
The Scottish Conservative leader says she still backs Boris Johnson as prime minister. Last year a campaign among her allies to try to stop a leadership bid from the former foreign secretary was reportedly codenamed “Operation Arse”.
Opinion polls published over the weekend suggested that in the UK as a whole, the Conservatives have enjoyed something of a "Boris bounce" since Johnson became prime minister – with a number of surveys putting them several points ahead of the main Labour opposition.