Scottish independence: How Dominic Cummings' exit from Downing Street may help Boris Johnson change his mind about a referendum – Ian Swanson

Referendum talk is hotting up again. And with less than six months to go until the next Scottish Parliament elections when a fresh vote on independence will be a dominating theme, everyone had better steel themselves for the debate.

Nicola Sturgeon will have to take care and show judgement if she is to succeed in getting a second Scottish independence referendum (Picture: Neil Hanna/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon will have to take care and show judgement if she is to succeed in getting a second Scottish independence referendum (Picture: Neil Hanna/PA)

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has apologised for not holding a referendum this year because of Covid and says it "must" take place next year.

Others in the party are said to see 2022 or 2023 as more realistic dates.

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Former prime minister Gordon Brown argued on TV at the weekend that this was not the time for thinking about independence and Scotland needed "time to heal" from Covid-19 “before you go into any divisive, conflicting referendum".

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Meanwhile, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack sticks to the line about the 2014 vote being a “once in a generation” event and says there should be no new independence referendum for 40 years.

But the drama of Dominic Cummings' departure from Downing Street last week prompted speculation over a possible softening of Boris Johnson's attitude on the issue.

Up until now, he has insisted there will be no referendum while he is prime minister. Nicola Sturgeon and her supporters have repeatedly said such a position will be “unsustainable” after next May’s elections which are expected to produce a pro-independence majority at Holyrood. As that prospect looms closer, will Mr Johnson start to shift his stance?

It seems unlikely that the chaos of an internal battle over advisers at Number Ten would alone influence policy on the constitutional future of the UK, but the Prime Minister is known to change his mind all the time, so almost anything is possible.

Public opinion now seems to back independence – elections guru Professor Sir John Curtice says 13 polls in a row have now shown more in favour than against. The UK government’s pursuit of Brexit is fuelling support for Scotland taking its own path. And Ms Sturgeon’s high approval ratings for her handling of the pandemic, especially in contrast to Boris Johnson, are also helping show how Scotland can do things differently.

But it is not all plain sailing for Ms Sturgeon. Although the polls suggest a majority would vote Yes to independence just now, the debate once a referendum got underway could see support fluctuate. The pro-independence side needs to have clear answers to the concerns people voiced last time about issues like currency, pensions and future relations with the EU.

And what if the UK government continues to refuse the Section 30 order which gives Holyrood the power to hold the referendum? Many in the SNP think Ms Sturgeon is too cautious in her approach and want the Scottish government to consider holding an unauthorised referendum.

And a new opinion poll suggests it is not just within the party there is support for some sort of Plan B. A Panelbase survey found 63 per cent saying the Scottish government should ensure the Scottish people are given a choice on independence while 37 per cent said it should accept that the UK government has a veto on an independence referendum.

Nationalists may feel they are on course to achieve their dream of an independent Scotland but there is still a long way to go and many hurdles to negotiate. Care and judgement will be crucial.

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