Boris Johnson’s aides and allies have rushed to downplay reports the prime minister does not believe in the Scottish Parliament or devolution.
The prime minister caused outrage on Monday night after telling Tory MPs on a private zoom call that Holyrood had been “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake” and that devolution had been a “disaster” for Scotland.
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 and Scots Tories attempted to repair the damage on Tuesday, saying the comments were not an attack on devolution itself – but rather the SNP government.
Tory party vice-chairman Andrew Bowie said: “We’re the only party that wants to make devolution work, we’ve devolved more powers to Holyrood than any government in history.
“What the prime minister was obviously getting at yesterday was his frustration with how the SNP have let down the people of Scotland with how they have managed devolution.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross took the same line, telling Sky News: “Devolution is not the issue, how the SNP have failed Scotland over the last 13 and a half years of them being in power in the Scottish Parliament is.”
Pressed on Mr Johnson’s specific claim that “devolution has been a disaster north of the border”, Mr Ross said: “I wasn’t in the meeting, I haven’t seen a readout of it.”
PM ‘destructive and reckless’
Former prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour government brought in devolution for Scotland in 1999.
The move saw the reconvening of a parliament in Edinburgh and whole swathe of powers transferred from Westminster.
Powers devolved included health, housing, fire services and some areas of transport.
Mr Johnson’s comments have been met with anger from former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael.
The Liberal Democrat MP said: “The prime minister and the Tories are the single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom.
“Boris Johnson’s policies have been destructive and his attitude has been reckless.
“Claiming to be ‘minister for the Union’ is like a fox declaring himself minister for the henhouse. If he truly cares about the unity of our country then he should pass on the job to someone who understands and cares about devolution.”
‘Boris Johnson has been a disaster’
Far North MP Jamie Stone added: “The prime minister’s comments say it all: he is not the man to keep the UK together.”
Scottish Labour’s constitution spokesman, Anas Sarwar MSP, agreed, adding: “Boris Johnson has been a disaster, not devolution.
“The truth is, he and his party are now the biggest threat to the United Kingdom.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford raised fears the Internal Market Bill, which is designed to replace EU legislation and create a new legal framework for the UK following Brexit, would be used as a vehicle to destroy devolution.
He said: “Boris Johnson’s remarks – that devolution has been a ‘disaster’ and that it was a ‘mistake’ – only further exposes the blatant power grab intentions of the Internal Market Bill.”
‘Union at heart of everything we do’
Responding to questions today, Number 10 sought to downplay the row.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “The prime minister has always fully supported devolution and this government continues to put the union at the heart of everything we do.
“The PM has been clear that he thinks the four corners of the UK are stronger together and he will be the voice of the majority of Scottish people who voted decisively to keep the UK together.
“He will always stand against those trying to separate the United Kingdom.
“The PM believes that we had what was a once-in-a-generation referendum and that the result of it should be respected. He firmly rejects the SNP’s call to break up the United Kingdom.”
Nevertheless Mr Johnson’s comments are likely to feature prominently on SNP leaflets ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections, which Nicola Sturgeon hopes to use as a springboard to push for a second independence referendum.