Brexit Behind Him, Boris Johnson Tries to Quiet Scotland’s Calls to Leave U.K.

LONDON — Barely six months after Britain broke away from the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly consumed with trying to stop the breakaway of restive parts of the United Kingdom.

On Friday, Mr. Johnson sent his popular Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland, to tamp down nationalist sentiment that has surged there in recent months. Another top minister, Michael Gove, went to Northern Ireland with nearly $500 million in aid to help frustrated companies deal with new checks on shipped goods.

Experts have long predicted that Brexit would strengthen centrifugal forces that were pulling apart the union. But in Scotland, in particular, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated those forces, forcing Mr. Johnson to mount an elaborate — some say belated — charm offensive with the Scottish public.

The situation is less acute in Northern Ireland, where reunification with the Republic of Ireland still seems a distant prospect. Yet businesspeople there, including those loyal to London, worry they will be hurt by a costly, bureaucratic trading system between Northern Ireland and the rest of the union.

“The U.K. government is sufficiently worried that it is sending people north on a regular basis,” Professor Curtice said. “London may only have woken up to this in the last couple of weeks, but it’s a long-running story.”

Political analysts said the Scottish National Party’s strategy has long been clear: to appeal to people who voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014, but also to stay in the European Union two years later.

“To wait until the polls shifted in Scotland was strikingly naïve,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London, referring to Mr. Johnson’s effort to woo the Scots. “The question is, whether this frantic activity is too little, too late.”

Mr. Gove, who holds the title of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, faced a different dilemma in Northern Ireland. Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union, analysts said, actually helped ease nationalist tensions because it preserved an open border between north and south on the island of Ireland.

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