New PM could be ‘catalyst’ for break-up of UK, academic claims

Boris Johnson could be the prime minister who provides the “catalyst” for the break-up of the United Kingdom, an academic has claimed.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has suggested the new Tory leader will be the “last prime minister of the United Kingdom”.

But Professor Michael Kenny from Cambridge University said this was “unlikely” as a result of the length of time it takes to leave a political union.

To help keep the union intact, the politics expert suggested Mr Johnson should give way to “more respected figures” in dealing with the Scottish Government.

With the internal politics of the union becoming “increasingly strained”, he said Mr Johnson’s time in Downing Street “could well ignite major political crises about the constitutional positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

The academic, from the Bennett Institute of Public Policy, added: “It is highly unlikely that Boris will be the PM who oversees the break-up of Britain but he may well go down in history as the catalyst for its dissolution.”

With constitutional issues coming to the fore in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, Prof Kenny warned: “Should Boris stumble in any one of these minefields he will quickly find that his upbeat tone and soundbites about the ‘awesome foursome’ are far from enough to keep the union together.”

In a blog post published by the Centre for Constitutional Change,  the academic said the new PM would need to be “deft and strategically minded” in his handling of Scottish issues, while at the same time being aware “his blend of half-ironic English buffoonery and free-market Toryism play particularly badly north of the border”.

As a result, he suggested Mr Johnson should let “other more respected figures take the lead in engaging with the devolved administrations” and he should “find ways of signalling that Ruth Davidson calls the shots for the Conservatives in Scotland”.

Mr Johnson faces a more “immediate and pressing challenge” in Northern Ireland, however, with the PM having made clear his opposition to the backstop mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement, which was included in a bid to prevent the return to a hard border with the Republic.

“Showing an authentic commitment to keeping the border open whilst presenting no-deal as a serious policy option is an extremely hard – and perhaps impossible – act to pull off,” Prof Kenny warned.

“Johnson and his team need to engage much more deeply and convincingly with the various stakeholders on these issues, establishing a new tenor in relations with the Irish government and engaging fully with the very real fears of the bulk of Northern Irish citizens.

“The new government needs to commit itself publicly to making the restoration of government at Stormont a political priority.”

He added: “Crashing out of the EU without a deal at a time when devolution in the North is not operative creates the very real prospect of a return to direct rule by the British state – an outcome with negligible political gain and, potentially, a considerable human and economic cost.”

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