The Sunday Telegraph

Unionists in Scotland may boycott new referendum

Tories in move to counter SNP while fresh funding shake-up sees cash sent directly from London

- By Christophe­r Hope CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPOND­ENT

SCOTTISH supporters of the Union could be ordered by Boris Johnson to boycott a second unofficial referendum on independen­ce, in a plan backed by the Tory leader north of the border.

A new referendum can only be held if it is backed by the UK government and senior Tories are determined to reject it on the grounds that the vote in 2014 was said by the SNP to be a once-in-a-generation event.

However, there are concerns the SNP could go ahead with a vote, without the support of Westminste­r, if the party wins control of the Scottish Parliament at May’s elections.

If this happens, senior Conservati­ves led by Scottish leader Douglas Ross want Mr Johnson to order supporters of the Union to boycott the vote and present the poll as a SNP vanity exercise.

The new approach would come just as the Government turns on the spending taps by tipping hundreds of millions of pounds directly into the pockets of Scottish communitie­s, bypassing the government in Edinburgh. “We want people in Scotland to see where the butter comes from”, said one Cabinet minister.

The plans could be discussed at a new weekly Union strategy meeting, chaired by Mr Johnson and attended by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, Scottish secretary Alister Jack, Welsh secretary Simon Hart and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis this week.

The idea to boycott a second ‘wildcat’ referendum is yet to be formally discussed by Mr Jack, Mr Gove or Mr Johnson. However, one Cabinet minister said: “If they [the SNP] held one of their own, we just would not engage. There is no way they would get to 50 per cent of the electorate.” A second referendum could cost nearly £20million.

Mr Ross, who is due to hold talks about the strategy to keep the Union together with the PM this week, said: “Every unionist in the country right across the UK should boycott this divisive tactic of the nationalis­ts.”

Separately, the UK Government is due to start funnelling cash directly to councils and local bodies to pay for community halls and other projects to show the physical benefit of the Union to locals after April.

The cash will be spent on community centres, local parks, shared spaces projects and other schemes “that make an obvious impact on regenerati­ng a local community”, a source said.

They will be in many cases branded with the union flag to stress how the government in London has paid for them.

Money will initially be made available from the Community Renewal Fund – to be replaced in 2022/23 by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund – and the Levelling Up Fund, which was expanded last week to include Scotland.

Previously the UK Government handed the cash to the devolved government in Scotland which spent the

‘If they hold a referendum of their own, we would not engage. They would not get 50 per cent of electorate’

money and was allowed to claim credit.

Mr Jack – who is behind the plan – said: “Scotland has two government­s, and it is right that the UK Government invests directly in Scotland.

“We will be working with local authoritie­s, who know their communitie­s well. People in Scotland can expect significan­t direct UK Government investment in their communitie­s in the coming months and years.”

The new UK Levelling Up Fund will invest £4.8 billion across the UK over four years (2021/22 to 2024/25), including at least £800m for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

From 2022/23 a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund will replace funding delivered through the EU. Decisions will be made at a UK level. In 2021/22 a £220m fund will top up existing EU funding.

Network Rail chief Sir Peter Hendy is also conducting a Union Connectivi­ty Review which will look at how to improve infrastruc­ture links between all parts of the UK. His interim review will be published shortly.

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