When Boris Johnson sacked David Mundell as Scottish Secretary, Ruth Davidson was said to be ‘livid’ over the decision. One of 17 ministers to leave government with Theresa May, there had been an expectation among Scottish Tories that he would stay in place – as a figure with ministerial experience unlike the bulk of the Scottish Conservative MPs who entered Parliament in 2017. In the end, the job went to Alister Jack – a politician who is more relaxed about the prospect of no deal.
With reports of a growing rift between the Scottish Conservatives and Boris Johnson, I sat down with Mundell at the Fringe by the Sea festival to discuss the future of conservatism in Scotland. Reflecting on his four years in the Scotland Office (and his longer stint as the only Scottish Tory MP), Mundell said he had plenty of regrets – one being that he hadn’t been allowed a Scotland Office cat due to an occasional visitor’s allergy. On his meeting with Boris Johnson, Mundell said that after Johnson broke the news that he would not require his services, he gave the new prime minister a selection of cuttings of negative references to Johnson in the Scottish press:
‘I think its very important to understand the scale of the task, the challenging political environment in Scotland. I think when he saw himself mocked up as Buzz Lightyear in one of them he thought it was going to be favourable, but when he read the headline he realised it wasn’t.’
Mundell was clear that the best way for Johnson to fare well in Scotland electorally would be to heed the advice of Davidson – even though the pair haven’t always had an easy relationship: ‘She has the electoral track record in Scotland, in terms of delivering additional MSPs, additional MPs, additional councillors, of being in tune with Scottish public opinion. That’s the message’. Despite his words of warning, Mundell was keen to press that he still supports the new Prime Minister in his efforts on Brexit. He said he would never vote down a Conservative government as ‘that is not something that you can ever reasonably do’. ‘As for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, while Mundell has previously been critical of the prospect, he said that faced with a choice he would take no deal over no Brexit: ‘I think that we have to have a Brexit rather than no Brexit’. It follows that Mundell will not be a member of the Gaukeward squad of sacked ministers intent on preventing no deal.
However, Mundell pressed the scale of the task ahead. He has argued previously that a no-deal Brexit could threaten the union. With a recent poll putting support for Scottish independence at 52:48, Mundell said that although the current government stance is to ignore all requests for a second independence referendum, it could untenable. Referring to the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, he said that if the election is fought explicitly on the issue of another referendum and there is a majority of nationalist parties then the government would need to listen to that.
‘If the 2021 Scottish Parliament election is fought on an explicit independence referendum basis then it is harder to push back against the idea that there isn’t a mandate for that.’ In order to prevent that, he said ‘all Unionist forces have to think about how they best organise themselves for that election.’
With Nicola Sturgeon insisting there is a ‘growing urgency’ for Scotland to become independent ‘sooner rather than later’ and John McDonnell triggering an internal war in Labour by saying his party should allow Holyrood to stage a second independence referendum if MSPs vote for one, there is a clear route to a second independence referendum. The most obvious way to avoid it is through support for unionist parties. It follows that the next few months will be pivotal not just to Brexit but the future of the Union.