THE Tories are rattled and how. They are rattled by Covid-19 – Boris’s flip-flops show he is bad in a crisis. They are rattled by their continuing inability to finalise post-Brexit trade deals. They are rattled by the economic meltdown now the cash is starting to run out. And above all, the Tories are rattled by the growing cracks in the Union.

Last week, Tory nerves really started to show. What’s-his-name was dumped as Tory branch manager in Scotland after only five months in the job, and the gauche, inexperienced Douglas Ross pushed forward as his replacement.

The game of political musical chairs on the Titanic continued with Ruth Davidson pulled out of retirement to take the ermine, while simultaneously reprising her role at FMQs until Ross arranges his return to Holyrood. Did anyone consult Alister Jack?

However, the depth of the crisis north of the Border requires more than a few panicky changes of personnel if the Tories are not to lose Scotland – and with it the Union. For if Scotland goes, Northern Ireland will follow very quickly.

Last week Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party developed not one, but two serious splits. The first involved no less than 11 DUP members at Stormont voting against Foster’s move to give ministers more power, while the other was a public spat over wearing face masks. Once the DUP starts coming apart, what remains of the Protestant Ascendency is surely doomed.

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The Tories know all this in their hearts – assuming they have hearts, which experience makes me doubt. In fact, underneath the surface, there is a serious debate taking place in Tory circles regarding the tactics required to “save the Union”.

For instance, they have recruited Isaac Levido – who ran Boris Johnson’s General Election campaign last year – to start polling in Scotland, looking for lines that might work with Scots voters. The youthful, hirsute Australian is credited with the strategy that secured the Tory victories in Labour’s red wall constituencies. It is said even the mighty Dominic Cummings defers to Levido – well, that’s what Tatler magazine says, so it must be true.

Levido’s forte is that he plays dirty. To date, the Scots Tories have been too middle-class, too remote from real politics to be much of a threat to the SNP. I cite the coming of Levido because he brings some Antipodean ruthlessness to the game in Scotland.

So do the libertarian millennials Levido recruited to run the Tory social media operation last December and who may be recalled to the colours to help in Scotland; Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Twenty-something New Zealanders – nicknamed the “meme machine” – Topham and Guerin say they “find people who are on the fence and make their minds up for them” using online messages to “unlock arousal emotions … anger, excitement, pride, fear”.

Much of this sotto voce Tory discussion on Scotland concerns how to approach the 2021 Holyrood elections. According to the Tory house magazine, The Spectator, one wing of the London Tory leadership wants the Scottish branch office to switch emphasis towards domestic matters rather than on the Union per se.

Ostensibly, this move would make the SNP fight on its record on schools and the economy – which the Tories believe is Nicola Sturgeon’s weak spot. Such a shift also has the advantage that when the Tories lose the 2021 election – as they know they will – they can argue (speciously) that an SNP majority is not a mandate for a second independence referendum, because the election was not about the constitution.

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This is what makes the elevation of Douglas Ross so peculiar. Ross is a one-trick political pony if ever there was one. He will not be able to resist mentioning independence at every turn. Ditto for the resurrected Ruth Davidson. She, after all, secured her southern media reputation as the saviour of Scottish Toryism by avoiding tricky issues she knows nothing about (such as economics) in favour of a becoming a gramophone record for Unionism.

CERTAINLY, Davidson succeeded in marshalling Unionist votes, syphoning off some Labour supporters. But this came at the cost of giving the SNP a free run on everything else. If Ross and Davidson turn the 2021 Scottish election into a plebiscite on the Union and indyref2, they stand to lose badly. Which will make it very difficult for Boris and Co to refuse a referendum.

Of course, Boris will try. He knows that this time round the Scots are liable to vote for independence if he agrees a Section 30 order.

The curious thing about the 2014 referendum – even though Yes lost – is that it normalised the constitutional question. Independence is no longer a weird thing to discuss or decide upon. That makes it more difficult to frighten the voters this time round.

Also, those arguments against independence that most affected marginal voters – eg fear of being excluded from the EU – have been settled decisively in favour of the pro-indy side. Only the prospect of a massive economic recession seems likely to give the Tories something to peddle.

So again, putting the untried Douglas Ross at the helm of the 2021 campaign seems a big risk for the Tories. They need to concentrate on domestic, economic matters to wrongfoot the SNP, but Ross is likely to go in the opposite direction prioritising the constitution.

Given the stakes involved, I’d bet Number 10 will be breathing down Mr Ross’s neck all the time, with the potential for Tory own goals growing by the day. How will Boris respond to an SNP victory in May?

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He certainly won’t move to grant a Section 30 any time soon. For if Scotland votes Yes in another referendum, then Boris Johnson goes down in the history books as “the man who lost the Union”, and his political career ends in ignominy.

Boris hasn’t spent all this time stabbing friends in the front and climbing the greasy political pole, only to be thwarted by those uppity Scots. Ultimately, Boris cares only about Boris. Which puts everything else in play. Option #1 will see a revival of talk about federalism. Of course, in Scotland, references to federalism only evoke yawns because this hairy old chestnut has appeared every time the Scots demand self-determination.

But post-May’s elections, uber-Brits will have few other lines of constitutional defence left if they are to stop Scotland and Northern Ireland walking out of the Union (followed by Wales in the not too distant future).

We all know the immense technical difficulties in creating a functioning federal system in the lop-sided UK. But the quid pro quo of splitting up England would be the prospect of cutting Scotland into separate federal jurisdictions, as well as hopefully (for Unionists) ditching the SNP once and for all. So expect a two-question referendum when it eventually comes: indy versus federalism.

The hegemony the SNP has achieved in Scottish politics will only make the Tories more determined to defend the Union. Hence the crowning of Douglas Ross. Which is why the Scottish people must realise the real contest is not really with Douglas Ross or the Tories – it is with ourselves. If truly we want our independence, no-one can stop us taking it. Only once Number 10 appreciates that will the political games cease.