A leaked memo given to senior Conservatives suggests the UK government should agree to a fresh independence referendum if the Scottish National party wins an outright majority next May.
The document written by Hanbury Strategy, a consultancy with very close links to the Tories, argues the UK government could offer significant new powers to the Scottish parliament and put both options to the vote.
The memo was shared with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister charged with leading the UK government’s efforts to counter a surge in support for Scottish independence, Bloomberg News reported.
Bloomberg said the memo also recommends a two-pronged attack on the case for an independent Scotland quickly rejoining the EU – a key argument put forward by Nicola Sturgeon to attract remain voters who rejected independence in the 2014 referendum.
Hanbury suggests “co-opting the EU into demonstrating that there is no viable pathway to renewed membership” while at the same time presenting policies on the environment and immigration which are good enough to persuade pro-remain voters to reject independence post-Brexit.
Describing the new anti-independence strategy as a “velvet no”, it suggests that it could include allowing Scotland to have different policies in areas such as immigration, a proposal repeatedly pushed by Sturgeon in the run-up to Brexit.
The memo summarises the potential strategy for the Tory government in three steps: “New accommodation, new constitutional settlement, and cooperation rather than confrontation.”
Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted he will not support a second independence referendum, a stance some Tories believe would be untenable if Sturgeon wins a majority in May but others strongly support.
The memo follows a series of opinion polls showing a majority of Scottish voters who have made up their minds now prefer independence. An Ipsos Mori poll last week put backing for independence at 58%, the highest on record, excluding don’t knows.
The polls also suggest the SNP is on track to win a majority, a result that Sturgeon insists would give her a clear mandate to stage a second independence vote.
Kirsten Oswald, the SNP deputy leader in Westminster, said the memo showed the Tories were now in “panic mode” and had realised Scottish voters believe the prime minister could not be trusted to act in Scotland’s interests.
Regardless of the Hanbury memo suggesting much greater devolution, Oswald said the Tories were in fact launching a power grab with the internal market bill which would rob Holyrood of its policymaking powers.
“The whole Westminster system is broken and it is time decisions about Scotland were taken by the people who live here,” she said.
Senior Scottish Tories admit the polls are an accurate reflection of public mood in Scotland, driven largely by widespread dissatisfaction with and dislike for the prime minister and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The polls worry the hell out of us because we feel they’re about right,” said one Tory. “We can all feel the ground has shifted. For the first time in our lives, independence is now a majority opinion in Scotland.”
The Scottish Tories believe their priority is to prevent the SNP winning a majority in May, and have attracted significant funding to bolster their campaigning and policy development. They claim the greatest challenge facing the anti-independence camp is the Labour party’s weakness in Scotland, with many potential Labour voters now switching to back Sturgeon and the SNP.