The finalists in the race to succeed Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister wooed voters Friday in Scotland, where frontrunner Boris Johnson‘s “no-deal Brexit” threats are fanning the flames of independence.
Built on fishing and oil, Scotland has been traditional tricky terrain for Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, which has not won a general election there since the 1950s.
But Johnson ventured up north for the first time Friday in the latest leg of a month-long campaign that will conclude with the July 24 confirmation of Britain’s next premier.
UK media reports paint a portrait of a confident Johnson already drafting the makeup of his future government.
But it is his rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has won the coveted endorsement of the Scottish Conservatives’ leader Ruth Davidson, who is weary of the prospects of Britain splitting away from the EU without any plans for what happens next.
Hunt, widely viewed as less charismatic but more pragmatic than Johnson, already dropped by Scotland last month in his bid to mount a late comeback.
While there, Hunt “ticked the most basic box of the leadership race” — in the words of the BBC — by being photographed holding up a can of Iron-Bru, a sweet orange cola known here as “Scotland’s other national drink”.
Prior to meeting some of the 160,000 party members who will ultimately decide the name of the next British leader, Hunt promised on Friday to deliver a boost to the region’s main drink, whisky, by securing “a good Brexit deal”.
“If we follow it with the right trade deals, we can continue the Scottish whisky boom,” Hunt told the head of the local Scotch Whisky Association.
It is unclear if these pledges will convince the locals that Hunt can accomplish by the new, extended October 31 deadline what May failed in her three years in charge.
But Hunt might be helped by Scottish apprehensions of Johnson’s main campaign promise — to get Britain out of the EU, deal or no deal, without any further delays.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU in the 2016 referendum, worried that its trade-dependent economy will be hurt by the loss of low-tariff arrangements with Britain’s main economic partner.
Those pro-EU sentiments remain strong, with one poll showing 53 percent of the respondents saying they would vote in favour of Scotland’s independence were Johnson to become UK premier.
Scotland already held one such vote in September 2014, which the pro-union camp won with 55 percent. But that was before Brexit — and Johnson.
But feeling a shift in opinion, Scottish Prime Minister and SNP independence party leader Nicola Sturgeon has aired plans to hold another sovereignty referendum by 2021.
Four polls published between mid-April and mid-June show the pro-independence camp gaining ground, especially among Scots who voted against Brexit three years ago.
“It would seem that the Brexit impasse has motivated some Remain supporters in recent months to re-evaluate their attitudes towards the (British) union,” said John Curtis, a polling expert and professor Glasgow’s Strathclyde University.
This means “the outcome of the Brexit process could potentially change the balance of support for independence versus staying in the union — and so determine the future of the British state.”
The possibility of Britain breaking apart was on May’s mind when she visited Scotland on Thursday to warn about the “undoubted consequences” of a no-deal Brexit.
“A lot of people have taken the union for granted over the years,” May said.
The paying Conservative Party members have more anti-European views than the nation as a whole, pushing Hunt to also take a more hawkish line on future negotiations with Brussels.
Hunt said he, too, was willing to take Britain out without a deal, adding that he would seek a short delay of a few days or a week if a new agreement seemed imminent.
The BBC had earlier reported that May’s office had attempted to stop him seeing some intelligence, partly because of concerns over his lack of discipline, prompting a spat with Johnson who had responsibility for the foreign spy agency MI6 and the GCHQ eaves dropping agency in his role.
“It’s not true and I don’t comment on intelligence matters,” Johnson told an event in Darlington, northern England. “The story … is not true.”