Senior Tories dismiss turmoil in Downing Street unit to counter Scottish nationalism

LONDON — Senior Conservatives dismissed turmoil in Downing Street over the union unit — a cell of aides set up to counter the argument for Scottish independence. 

With just over two months to go before a crunch election to Scotland’s devolved parliament, at which the Scottish National Party wants to bolster its mandate for another independence referendum, the new head of the union unit, Oliver Lewis, quit his post late last week.

Lewis had been in the role less than two weeks, and his departure leaves the crucial team of advisers rudderless, with aides in Downing Street unsure when he might be replaced. 

But Wales Secretary Simon Hart said the fight to keep the union together is “completely unaltered” despite the chaos over staff. 

“Personnel come and go, as we know, in every element of political life,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “But we know what our ambitions are and we know what our instructions are, so frankly we just get on with it. The direction we’re trying to go, the things we’re trying to achieve, are unaltered by that kind of change. It’s a much wider project now than just a cell of individuals.”

He added: “The leader of the union unit is [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson … The union unit is now the whole of government. We are all part of the union unit now.”

A senior Scottish Conservative added that the personnel turmoil was “a row amongst courtiers.”

“It wasn’t anything to do with the issue itself, it was to do with the personalities,” the person said. “And therefore the fundamentals on the issue remain the same. We need to focus on them and not the personalities.”

Lewis replaced Luke Graham, a former Scottish Conservative MP who was ousted from the role. Some have argued Graham did not have the ear of the prime minister, while others insist a job needed to be found for Lewis, who had recently finished negotiating the Brexit deal. 

In an article for the Times on Monday, Graham argued “the fight for the Union is a long one and there is no silver bullet to tackle nationalism.”

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