Boris Johnson’s aides scramble to explain after he calls Scottish devolution ‘a disaster’

British prime minister’s remarks undercut Conservative party stance in Scotland

Boris Johnson's attempt to stem support for Scottish independence was in serious trouble on Tuesday after it emerged that he had described the devolution of power to Edinburgh as "a disaster".

The British prime minister’s comments to English Conservative MPs on Monday night were immediately seized upon by the Scottish National party, which claimed the prime minister’s “mask had slipped”.

Downing Street rushed to repair the damage, insisting Mr Johnson supported the 20-year-old project to devolve power to Holyrood, and arguing that it had been exploited by “separatists”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister, wrote on Twitter: "Worth bookmarking these PM comments for the next time Tories say they're not a threat to the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or, even more incredibly, that they support devolving more powers."


She added that the "only way to protect and strengthen" the Scottish parliament was through independence for Scotland.

Mr Johnson’s comments are likely to feature prominently on SNP leaflets ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections, which Ms Sturgeon hopes to use as a springboard to push for a second independence referendum.

The prime minister and Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, meanwhile have sought to work more collaboratively with the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in a bid to bind the union together.

But the new approach was in trouble after the Sun newspaper reported that Mr Johnson had told Tory MPs representing northern English seats that “devolution has been a disaster north of the border”.

The prime minister also described the 1999 decision to devolve powers to the Scottish parliament as “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”. The Zoom call with English MPs was supposed to be private but the comments were leaked.

Independence vote

Downing Street did not deny the remarks, but an aide to Mr Johnson said: "The PM has always supported devolution but Tony Blair failed to foresee the rise of separatists in Scotland. Devolution is great – but not when it's used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK."

Mr Gove, a Scot, has repeatedly warned cabinet colleagues of the pressure building in Scotland for another independence vote, with repeated opinion polls suggesting a majority now favour a Yes vote.

Mr Johnson has insisted that his government will not support a second vote, pointing out that the previous referendum in 2014 was billed by the SNP leadership as “a once-in-a-generation” event.

Mr Johnson’s attack on devolution undercuts the stance of the Scottish Conservative party, which in the late 1990s opposed creation of the parliament at Edinburgh, but has since embraced it.

Douglas Ross, Scottish Tory leader, this month even suggested that some powers over immigration should be devolved to Scotland and other parts of the UK, adding that the administrations should also be given a formal role in the House of Lords.

“Devolution has not been a disaster,” Mr Ross wrote on Twitter on Monday evening. “The SNP’s nonstop obsession with another referendum – above jobs, schools and everything else – has been a disaster.”

Doubts about Conservative commitment to devolution could make it more difficult for the party to broaden its support ahead of elections for the Scottish parliament in May.

The UK Tory government has already drawn fire over its UK Internal Market Bill, which it says is needed to preserve economic exchanges but that is fiercely opposed by Edinburgh and Cardiff. Constitutional experts have said the bill gives Westminster control over a number of devolved policy areas. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020