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Boris Johnson is to launch a charm offensive in Scotland later this week as part of his plan to save the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister is expected to use a visit north of the border to highlight the UK Government’s role in delivering hundreds of thousands of coronavirus vaccines to the Scottish NHS in an attempt to turn the tide against record levels of support for independence.
Plans for the trip emerged after Gordon Brown warned that the UK was at risk of becoming a “failed state” and splitting up unless Mr Johnson embarks on a programme of major constitutional reform.
The SNP is determined to push ahead with its plan for separation, and published plans at the weekend to hold an independence referendum even without UK Government approval.
Unionists are frustrated that Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity has soared during the pandemic, despite UK Government initiatives such as the furlough scheme and the Treasury boosting the Scottish Government budget by billions of pounds.
UK ministers hope that the nation's world-leading delivery of coronavirus vaccines, and the development of the Oxford jab in Britain, will finally cut through with Scottish voters by offering a tangible example of the benefits of the Union.
Asked about the SNP’s plans for a new referendum on Monday, Mr Johnson said: "The whole UK is going through a pandemic, I think what the people of the UK want to see is everybody focussing on beating that pandemic, which we are, rolling out the vaccine, and getting ready to bounce back from that pandemic and have the strongest possible economic recovery.
"I think people also can see everywhere in the UK the visible benefits of our wonderful union.
"A vaccine programme that is being rolled out by a National Health Service, a vaccine that was developed in labs in Oxford and is being administered by the British Army, so I think the strengths and advantages of the Union speak for themselves."
Nicola Sturgeon’s government is under pressure for the slow roll-out of the vaccine in Scotland, with the country currently lagging behind all other UK nations. While the UK Government has secured vaccines and delivers them to Scotland, the SNP Government has responsibility for running the jab programme.
Debate a few weeks ago was whether we should go to 24/7 vaccinations.
Today's figures suggest Scotland has some way to go to get a full seven-day operation up and running, as vaccinations on Sunday more than halve. pic.twitter.com/4qSgMHStDf
— Dan Sanderson (@DSanderson_85) January 25, 2021
However, the SNP has a huge lead heading into May’s Holyrood elections, with polls suggesting the nationalists are on course to claim a majority.
The party has said that if a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected, the Scottish Government would once again request a temporary transfer of powers to Holyrood which would put the legality of a new independence vote beyond doubt.
However, should Mr Johnson refuse - as he has repeatedly said he would - the SNP would go ahead and legislate for a new vote anyway.
UK ministers, as well as any private individual, could contest the legality of a new vote in the courts, although the SNP has said it any such challenge would be “vigorously opposed by an SNP Scottish Government”.
Number 10 insisted that holding an independence referendum “does go beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament”.
However, advocates of the SNP plan say Holyrood may be able to organise a non-binding referendum and that the matter has never been tested in court.
In response to news of Mr Johnson’s planned visit, his first to Scotland since his summer holiday in August, an SNP spokeswoman highlighted coronavirus restrictions which require non-essential work to be carried out at home.
She said: “The Prime Minister is always welcome to visit Scotland. The law in Scotland requires all work that can be done at home, to be done at home and Scottish ministers are not engaging in visits in line with the current Stay at Home regulations and the requirement to stay local, so it's clear the PM must think the union is really in peril if he considers his visit to be so essential."