Boris Johnson in Scotland: How the Prime Minister caused controversy wherever he went during his visit – Ian Swanson

Some prime ministers just don't get on in Scotland.

Monday, 9th August 2021, 4:45 pm

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Margaret Thatcher thought her belief in thrift, hard work and enterprise fitted well with supposed Scottish characteristics and couldn't understand why Scots voters did not embrace her policies; and, despite being the one who delivered devolution, Tony Blair always appeared uncomfortable north of the Border and got into trouble for comparing the powers of the Scottish Parliament with those of an English parish council.

Now we have Boris Johnson, who doesn't seem to care.

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On his visit to Scotland last week, he refused an invitation from Nicola Sturgeon to meet at Bute House to discuss co-operation over Covid, joked about Mrs Thatcher closing coal mines and failed to self-isolate after one of his aides on the trip tested positive for coronavirus.

Meanwhile, polls have shown the Tories’ lead over Labour narrowing and his personal approval rating falling.

Scottish Tories had the sense to discourage any campaign visits by the Prime Minister during the Holyrood elections in May and no doubt they will privately be wishing he had continued to stay away. Even at the height of his popularity elsewhere, Boris Johnson has never had the same appeal in Scotland.

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Boris Johnson boards the vessel Alba in Fraserburgh Harbour on his way to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East during his visit to Scotland

Everyone knows Mr Johnson’s approach to the pandemic differs considerably from Nicola Sturgeon’s, his cavalier nature contrasting with her instinctive caution. But his rejection of the First Minister’s offer of a meeting to talk about working together on Covid recovery was an unnecessary snub and just serves to reinforce the impression that he is not interested in co-operation with the Scottish government.

And his comment during a briefing for journalists on Glasgow’s Cop26 environment summit that “thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we're now moving rapidly away from coal altogether” – followed by the quip “I thought that would get you going” – showed a callous disregard for the devastation inflicted on many communities in the 1980s.

Ms Sturgeon condemned his remark as “crass and deeply insensitive”. It sparked outrage not just in Scotland but also in many parts of northern England, an area crucial to Tory hopes of staying in power at the next election. One man whose father lost his job at a pit in Cumbria was quoted saying: “He's laughing at lives being destroyed. Very funny, isn't it?”

And an unnamed Tory MP said the Prime Minister had effectively “spat on” communities across the north.

Mr Johnson’s decision not to isolate despite one of his team testing positive for Covid during the trip also provoked a backlash. It echoed his effort to resist isolation last month along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak after they were in contact with Covid-positive Sajid Javid and suggested yet again an arrogant assumption that he does not need to follow the rules that apply to everyone else.

The controversies from the Prime Minister’s two-day trip coincided with the revelation that he was nearly swept out to sea and drowned while paddleboarding during his holiday in Scotland last year and had to be rescued by his protection officers. He has reportedly said he would return for another holiday “over my dead body”.

That might well come as a relief to many, not least his Tory colleagues north of the Border.

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