Boris Johnson’s attempt to halt rising support for Scottish independence was in serious trouble on Monday last night, after it emerged he described the devolution of power to Edinburgh as “a disaster”.
Mr Johnson’s comments to English Conservative MPs were immediately seized upon by the Scottish National party, which claimed the prime minister’s “mask had slipped”.
Downing Street quickly tried to repair the damage, insisting that Mr Johnson supported the 20-year-old project to devolve power to Holyrood, but that devolution had been exploited by “separatists”.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “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, want to work more collaboratively with the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to try to bind the union together.
He 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.
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 pressures building in Scotland for another independence vote, with repeated opinion polls suggesting a majority now in favour of a Yes vote.
Mr Johnson has insisted that his government will not support a second vote, arguing that the previous vote in 2014 was described 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, saying they should also be given a formal role in the House of Lords.
“Devolution has not been a disaster,” Mr Ross tweeted 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, a piece of legislation it says is needed to preserve economic exchanges but which is fiercely opposed by Edinburgh and Cardiff and which constitutional experts say gives Westminster control over a number of devolved policy areas.