IN the game of chess that is the constitutional row over Scotland’s future, it comes as no surprise that Boris Johnson is trying to “neutralise” as much as possible Nicola Sturgeon’s role at the august gathering in Glasgow in a few weeks’ time: the COP26 climate change conference.
It should also come as no surprise to Downing St that, as the grand event nears, stories are beginning to emerge about the “what to do with Nicola” conundrum. Boris has had long enough to sort this out but has vacillated for month after month after month.
Of course, it was in February 2020, some 19 long months ago, that the issue of Ms Sturgeon’s COP26 role was raised by Clare Perry O’Neill.
The former Tory minister was unceremoniously dumped by the then new PM as COP26 President after she suggested the FM be given a job in relation to the high-profile summit.
Accusing Boris of “not getting” climate change and of engaging in “playground politics” in his attitude towards the Scottish Government, Ms O’Neill revealed her onetime boss had responded to her suggestion by having “heartily and saltily rebutted” it.
The salty language later came in the alleged form of the PM blowing his top, spluttering: “Over my f****** dead body. I’m not being driven out of Scotland by that bloody Wee Jimmy Krankie woman.”
No 10 subsequently denied Mr Johnson had uttered such disgraceful language but asked if, having not used it, he nonetheless believed in its sentiment, his spokesman replied: “He has clearly demonstrated his respect for the First Minister; in fact, the first visit he made was to Scotland and Bute House to meet with her.
“He is committed to working with the Scottish Government to strengthen the Union and unleash the potential of Scotland. We will also work closely with the Scottish Government ahead of the COP26 summit to make sure it is an ambitious and successful summit.”
Fast forward to this year and when, last month, the PM ventured to Scotland but declined the FM’s offer of a one-to-one meeting.
The snub was played down by both sides but, when pressed, Mr Johnson adopted a more emollient tone when asked about Ms Sturgeon’s role at COP26, saying: “I hope very much the First Minister, along with all her colleagues around the UK, at whatever level in government, will evangelise, will exhort everybody that she represents and they represent to do the needful.”
Boris went further. He said Nicola would have a “huge role” at the summit but, conspicuously, failed to say what it would be.
The Herald understands Downing St is now looking at holding the PM’s promised four-nation summit just ahead of COP26 in order to cultivate a more collegiate approach to the climate conference and make sure nothing or no one overshadows its primary purpose.
Which is where the concerns have kicked in over the SNP leader, directly or indirectly, using the climate change event as “an advert for an independence campaign,” as Whitehall sources put it in leaked WhatsApp messages.
Leaked meeting notes also warned there was a risk Ms Sturgeon could seek to “hijack” the summit by using it as a “soapbox for her independence obsession”.
But in the constitutional chess game Boris has just lost a major piece on the board because, given the inevitable leaking caused by the political vacuum over the FM’s role, Nicola can take the high moral ground and denounce any political skulduggery when the future of the planet is at stake.
As ever, she swiftly took to Twitter to denounce the politicking but, of course, her action was in itself scoring a political point against the Conservative Government in London.
“All that matters,” she earnestly declared, “is that COP26 delivers an outcome to meet the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. We must work together and maximise contributions towards that.
“Anyone – me or PM – who allowed politics to get in way would be abdicating that responsibility.”
Mr Johnson’s advisers have once again, due to Boris’s lack of foresight and action, allowed his Nationalist opponents to grab the headlines and seize the momentum.
If COP26 is not to become a political disaster for the UK Government, Michael Gove, Boris’s point-man on Scotland, Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, and all the pointy-headed whizzkids in the Cabinet Office’s Union Directorate, need to get their act together before it is too late.
Come November, flooding Glasgow with Union flags simply won’t be enough.