Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt scrap over Union ahead of Scotland hustings

BORIS Johnson and Jeremy Hunt head north of the border on Friday to address Tory activists at a hustings event in Perth as the two leadership contenders seek to out-do each other in their commitment to the Union.

Boris Johnson: "Minister for the Union"
Boris Johnson: "Minister for the Union"

The meeting will be the latest in a series of such events around the country but the only opportunity for party members in Scotland to quiz the two would-be prime ministers.

Many Scottish Tories fear that if Mr Johnson, the current favourite, ends up as victor it will damage the party here and endanger the Union. A recent poll found support for independence rose to 53 per cent if the former London Mayor were to succeed Theresa May.

But as this newspaper reported yesterday, former Labour minister Malcolm Chisholm believes Brexit and the continuation of Conservative government - whoever is leader - is likely to make independence inevitable, adding that he could be one of those persuaded to vote Yes in such circumstances.

Jeremy Hunt: "Union before Brexit every time"

Ruth Davidson has achieved a remarkable advance for the Scottish Tories since she became leader, taking them to second place behind the SNP in terms of seats at both Holyrood and Westminster.

But all that is now at risk thanks to the Brexit saga and the prospect of Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt in Downing Street.

Ms Davidson is backing the current Foreign Secretary - after her previous picks, Sajid Javid then Michael Gove, were both eliminated from the race.

She had appeared to soften her criticism of Mr Johnson in anticipation of having to cope with him as PM, but announcing her support for Mr Hunt she hit out at his “Brexit, do or die” comment, saying it ought to be “the Union, do or die”.

Mr Johnson has in the past been scathing about the Barnett formula which guarantees the level of UK funding for Scotland, calling it “deeply inequitable” and describing it as “a kind of present” to Scotland.

The former London Mayor has also claimed a pound spent in Croydon was worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde and more jobs would be created in Scotland by investing in London.

And he said the idea of a Scots prime minister of the UK in the age of devolution was “just no conceivable”.

But now his campaign team says he would keep the Barnett formula and Mr Johnson has announced he wants to add “Minister for the Union” to the Prime Minister’s official job title and set up a new unit at Number Ten to “sense-test and stress-test” every policy for its effect on the Union.

Mr Hunt - who made sure he was photographed sipping Irn Bru on his last visit to Scotland - says he has always supported the Barnett formula. But he found himself having to explain how he could simultaneously promise to put the Union before Brexit “every time” and at the same time insist on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit which he acknowledges will be damaging and which others have warned could end the Union.

Malcolm Chisholm believes radical policies implemented by a Labour government could still stop or at least delay independence, but says Tory rule under either Mr Hunt or Mr Johnson will leave people wondering what is the advantage of staying in the Union and suffering the impact of Brexit.

Tory handling of the exit from one Union could well end up destroying the future of another.