British PM rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt woo Scotland, with UK unity at stake

Boris Johnsom (left) and Jeremy Hunt take part in a Conservative Party event in Perth, Scotland.
Boris Johnsom (left) and Jeremy Hunt take part in a Conservative Party event in Perth, Scotland.PHOTOS: AFP

PERTH, United Kingdom (AFP) - The two finalists in the race to succeed Theresa May as Britain's prime minister wooed voters on Friday (July 5) in Scotland, where frontrunner Boris Johnson's "no-deal Brexit" threats are fanning the flames of independence.

Scotland has been traditional tricky terrain for Britain's governing Conservative Party, which has not topped a British general election there since the 1950s.

Former London mayor Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt held a hustings meeting in Perth, a city in central Scotland - the latest leg of a month-long contest that will conclude with one of them being appointed Britain's next prime minister on July 24.

It was Johnson's first trip north of the English border during the campaign.

Stealing a march on Johnson, Hunt visited Scotland last month and has secured the endorsement of the Scottish Conservatives' leader Ruth Davidson, who is wary of the prospects of Britain splitting away from the EU without any plans for what happens next.

DECIDING THE UNION'S FUTURE

Perhaps more charismatic but less pragmatic than Hunt, bookmakers reckon Johnson appears to be cruising to victory among the 160,000 grassroots Conservatives who will pick the governing party's next leader by postal ballot.

However, Scotland, especially wary of the effects Brexit may have, may be one part of the UK that has not fallen under his spell.

"Boris is a big character. He is very popular in England; he is a bit of an unknown quantity in Scotland," said Craig Hoy, 44, a councillor in East Lothian, east of Edinburgh.

"He would have a big job in the coming weeks, and if he is elected as a prime minister, to make sure that he acts in Scotland interests."

Though Conservatives have started receiving their ballot papers in the post, Max Mitchell, 27, a local councillor in the Scottish capital, is yet to make up his mind.

For him, the key priority is "devotion to the union": keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom.

Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May has also urged her successor as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party - to give it its full title - to do everything to preserve the union, with nationalists eyeing Brexit as an opportunity to push the independence case again.

In a speech in the Scottish city of Stirling on Thursday, she stressed the importance of concluding a good divorce deal with the European Union.

Scotland voted 55 per cent in favour or remaining in the UK in a 2014 referendum.

However, that was before the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, in which 62 per cent within Scotland backed the UK remaining in the bloc.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the left-wing secessionist Scottish National Party, wants another independence referendum by 2021 if Britain goes through with leaving the EU - scheduled for Oct 31 this year.

The pro-EU sentiment remains strong, with one poll showing 53 per cent of respondents saying they would vote in favour of Scottish secession were Johnson to become Britain's premier.

"It would seem that the Brexit impasse has motivated some Remain supporters in recent months to re-evaluate their attitudes towards the union," said John Curtis, a polling expert and professor at Glasgow's Strathclyde University.

Johnson has pledged to take Britain out of the EU on Oct 31 come what may, while Hunt has said he would be prepared to delay departure if a deal was closely in sight.

Speaking to reporters ahead of Friday's Perth hustings, Hunt presented himself as a "passionate unionist".

If he becomes prime minister, he pledged to work "constructively and positively" with Sturgeon - but would not authorise another independence referendum.

Aware that his comments could cost votes, Johnson has tried to moderate his rhetoric.

In an interview with The Press and Journal, Scotland's oldest daily newspaper, Johnson said a no-deal Brexit was extremely unlikely.