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The Union

Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 28 April 2021

We can assess the strength of the Union every day, as we see the number of people vaccinated across the country continue to rise, as we see the number of jobs we have protected and as we see our vital, ambitious plans to rebuild our economy. I am surprised the hon. Gentleman is asking about recent assessments, because the one thing we learned this week is that his boss, Nicola Sturgeon, has made no recent assessment of her plan to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom and the damage that would cause.

If the Secretary of State is so confident in the Union, why is he stopping the Prime Minister coming to Scotland to campaign for it? Have the dubious donations for renovations made that impossible? The contracts for contacts? The disgraceful comments about bodies piling high? Or is it simply that the Prime Minister represents a fundamental problem for Scotland being in the Union, with year after year of Prime Ministers, parties and policies that Scotland would not vote for in a million years?

In all the conversations I have had with the Prime Minister—and I have them on a weekly basis, in person, one to one, by telephone—his passion for the United Kingdom and the strength of the United Kingdom burns brightly.

As of yesterday, 61.3% of Scots aged 16 or over have received at least one dose of covid vaccine, compared with just 24.3% of people aged 18 or over who have received a vaccine in the European Union. Does the Secretary of State agree that the outstanding efforts of our NHS staff, our British armed forces and our vaccination volunteers have been possible here in Scotland only because of the success of the UK vaccination programme, and that Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that, somehow, an independent Scotland within the EU would have done it differently are complete rubbish?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Just once, on something as important as live-saving vaccines, it would be nice to see the First Minister congratulate the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom Government on our highly successful UK-wide vaccine procurement programme.

Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to pay tribute to everyone who is commemorating on International Workers’ Memorial Day today, and also to wish the Secretary of State a very happy Ed Balls Day, which is also today.

On “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, the First Minister admitted that there has been no analysis done on the impact of separation on incomes—that is wages, livelihoods and, of course, pensions. It follows a long list during this election campaign where the SNP has avoided answering questions on currency, EU accession, jobs, deficit, debt, public spending, the parallels with Brexit and, of course, the spectacle of senior SNP MSPs saying last week that a border with England would be “desirable” because it would create jobs—a rare honest admission about a border with our largest trading partner. For two days in a row, respected think-tanks have warned that leaving the UK and giving up our share of UK resources means supercharged austerity.

Surely one of the strongest positive cases for the Union is the reality of separation. If proponents of separation continue to refuse to answer critical questions that fundamentally impact on people’s livelihoods, incomes and futures, what can be done to inject some much-needed honesty, integrity and truth into this debate, for the benefit of all Scots?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that independence would have a whole series of negative consequences for the people of Scotland, not just on their pensions and benefits but on currency, border issues and armed services. The list is endless. There has been no assessment of those things, as I said earlier.

This is the time when we should be coming together for covid recovery and to rebuild our economy, not even considering an irresponsible independence referendum. I would very much welcome it if the Labour party, and the other political parties, showed a willingness to come together to work on how we can strengthen our Union.

Anas Sarwar has said throughout this campaign that we need to unite the country to deal with this global pandemic.

Talking of honesty, integrity and truth, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the Prime Minister for his “let the bodies pile high” comment, when so many have lost loved ones due to covid? There have been more than 800 deaths in my city of Edinburgh alone. While he is apologising, perhaps he can tell us, if the Prime Minister has nothing to hide, who funded the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. Does he think the endemic sleaze in his Government, with continual questions about the personal conduct and integrity of the PM, strengthens or weakens the Union?

What I would say on the bodies remark is that in every conversation I have had with the Prime Minister in the past year his desire, at all levels, has been to save lives and protect the NHS; we have had many conversations, in Cabinet Committees, in Cabinet and in private, and I have no recollection of him being anything other than totally focused on saving lives and protecting the NHS. He has been entirely focused on this pandemic all the way through. He has not been distracted, as others have, for example, the nationalists, with Nicola Sturgeon admitting that she took her eye off the ball. He has not taken his eye off the ball. He has been focused on the pandemic. He has tackled vaccines and the programme, and he now wants to lead our economic recovery. Those are the things we should hold him to account for; those are the things that strengthen the United Kingdom.

There has been much reckless chat from Scottish National party politicians about creating a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. My constituents in the Scottish Borders want to see the threat of a border—and the threat of another referendum—removed. Does the Minister agree that the voters of Scotland have an opportunity to remove that threat next week in the Scottish elections by depriving the SNP of a majority and that the best way of doing that is by voting Scottish Conservative?

You will not be surprised to hear, Mr Speaker, that I do agree with my hon. Friend. I note with astonishment the comments of the South Scotland MSP Emma Harper that a border would be a good way of creating jobs, despite the fact that 60% of our trade is with the rest of the UK. All I would say is that if the SNP thinks that a border is such a good idea for jobs, I am surprised it does not want to go the whole hog and propose building a wall.

Particularly as we rebuild after covid, we have an opportunity and a need to make radically different economic choices. After a week of troublesome allegations about the Government and the Prime Minister, it should be no surprise that many in Scotland want to take a different, independent path to that of this Government. If that request is reflected in the upcoming Scottish Government elections and a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected, will the Minister and his Government respect that as a mandate for a second independence referendum?

First, let us not take the outcome of the election for granted at this stage. Let us recognise that the focus for Scotland must be on pandemic recovery. We have saved lives through the vaccine procurement, and it is now time to save livelihoods and to rebuild as one United Kingdom.

I did not hear an answer to my question there. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives was asked multiple times on recent media, “What would be the democratic path for Scotland to an independence referendum?” He could not answer the question, so can the Minister tell us what the path is?

I say to the hon. Lady that in 2014 there was a referendum; it had been many years since the question had been asked, and that was with the consent of both Scotland’s Governments and all the main political parties. I am glad to say that in Scotland people shared my opinion in 2014 and consented to continue being members of the UK.

There is only one sure-fire way for the Union to be strengthened in the next week and that is to get the Prime Minister to Scotland and on the campaign trail. The Secretary of State surely knows that there will be throngs of happy Scots rejoicing in the Prime Minister’s sleaze-free presence, helping the Electoral Commission with its inquiries and sharing anecdotes about bodies piled high on the streets—what could possibly go wrong for the Scottish Tories? Can the Secretary of State and I start working on the itinerary? Surely Scotland deserves to see its Prime Minister before he inevitably has to resign.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Prime Minister’s diary is not my concern, and he certainly will not be resigning. I come back to the point I made earlier: in all my discussions with him, his passion for strengthening the UK burns very bright indeed.