UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused the Scottish National Party (SNP) of prioritising securing a second independence referendum over its coronavirus response, calling the push for a second vote “incredible”.
Addressing the Scottish Conservatives virtual conference on Sunday, Johnson lauded his UK government’s record in its handling of the pandemic, including the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and the vaccination programme, describing it as demonstrating “the United Kingdom’s collective strength”.
“I just find it incredible then that the SNP would choose this moment to again push their campaign for separation", he remarked.
He accused the SNP of trying to start "another political fight" during the pandemic in light of business re-openings and reunions with friends and family.
The PM continued saying that perhaps he shouldn't be surprised, as, in his opinion, independence is the SNP's "obsession", and asked if they have a "sense of priority" about what is "important right now".
"The SNP can see – after the impact of coronavirus – that people want time to renew their lives and to rebuild relationships that have become stretched. They know that workers are concerned primarily about their jobs and businesses concerned for their future", he said.
“How can the SNP say that a referendum is the priority to them? It is the last thing they need right now.
He accused Scotland's dominant party of not listening to the public and remaining intent on pushing for the referendum, "regardless of the cost to Scotland and the whole of the UK".
Johnson urged voters to back the Scottish Conservatives to stop 'Indyref2' instead of other unionist parties, including in particular Scottish Labour.
The Conservative PM, fresh from the completion of Brexit, slammed Scottish Labour as “too weak” to be trusted to properly oppose the SNP and prevent a second referendum.
“They [Labour] would rather work with the SNP to be seen as anti-Conservative than stand up for the unity of the United Kingdom", he claimed.
“We cannot put the future of our country in Labour’s hands, not in Edinburgh or in London".
The PM said it was up to his Conservatives to prevent the SNP "from winning a majority in May just like they did in 2016. The only party that can cut the SNP down to size".
“The SNP want to divide us, to turn Scotland against itself, at this of all times", he expostulated.
"So that is the goal for all of you in May and what is at stake – to stop an SNP majority government and secure Scotland’s and the whole of the UK’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic".
In response to the address, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar accused Johnson’s Conservative Party of attempting to take the country "back to the old divisive arguments:
“They want us to argue with each other rather than focus on the priorities of the Scottish people – creating jobs, a comeback plan for education and rebuilding our NHS", he said.
Sarwar stressed that only "Scottish Labour is going into this election with a focus on national recovery and uniting our country".
Prior to the PMs address, the SNP’s Michael Russell called on Johnson to clarify if he believes Scotland has the right to decide on its independence in another referendum.
“No one is proposing holding an independence referendum now, but if the people back a post-pandemic referendum in the coming election then democracy must prevail", Russell said in the directed address.
Russell challenged Johnson to "make his position crystal clear: does he accept that Scotland has the democratic right to choose independence in a post-pandemic referendum – or is his position that the people should never be allowed to choose their own future under any circumstances?".
The SNP lawmaker accused the Conservative PM of addressing the conference in a "Trump-like fashion" and signaled that "should they lose the Holyrood election in May – then he simply won’t recognise the result".
“But privately, the Prime Minister and his colleagues know that a Trump-like bid to deny democracy is untenable and unacceptable – which is why they are so busy in the background making plans on how to contest an independence referendum", the Argyll & Bute MSP said.
“If Scottish voters in May back the SNP’s plan to hold a post-pandemic referendum, then he has no right to block it".
The speech comes amid reports by some of a resurgence of support for Scotland to remain a part of the Commonwealth, according to recent polling. This is a reversal of the trend seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave significant leads for independence.