BORIS Johnson has been “caught red-handed” showing his contempt for the Scottish Parliament after he was recorded in a meeting of 60 northern Tory MPs branding devolution a “disaster”.
During the Zoom call on Monday evening, the Prime Minister said the creation of a Scottish Parliament had been “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”.
Number 10 defended the remarks, insisting that Johnson would be standing up for the majority verdict.
“The PM has always fully supported devolution. This Government continues to put the Union at the heart of everything that we do,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“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.”
One senior Tory MSP told The National that he and colleagues were furious and despondent.
“This is a massive gift for the SNP,” he said. “I want to spend the next six months talking about the failures of Nicola Sturgeon, rather than verbal incontinence of Boris Johnson.”
Another Tory source told The Herald: “This is not what we need right now, six months from the elections. Boris is turning into a liability, and he needs to stop talking about issues that he clearly does not understand.”
Publicly, a number of Tory politicians moved to try and re-interpret the Prime Minister’s comments.
Former Tory secretary of state for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, insisted that when Johnson said devolution, he really meant the SNP.
The Tory told the BBC’s Today programme: “I’m afraid this is rather typical of the loose language that Boris Johnson occasionally uses. I suspect there are two things he was almost certainly meaning to say.
“He was quoted saying it was ‘Tony Blair’s disaster’ and of course, from the point of view of the Labour Party in Scotland it was a total disaster.
“The creation of the Scottish assembly was meant to lead to the end of the SNP and the end of nationalism. It actually led to the end of the Labour Party in Scotland who are now behind the Tories, which in my days would have been inconceivable.”
He added: “The other point, a more fundamental point for what’s happening at the moment, is that the way the SNP who control the Scottish Parliament is operating is they’re being pretty useless when it comes to Scottish education and domestic issues.”
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick also denied that Boris Johnson regards Scottish devolution as a “disaster”.
Despite it being literally what the Prime Minister had said, he told Sky News: “That is not what the Prime Minister was saying.”
He added: “The Prime Minister has always supported devolution but he is at heart a Unionist and he is very troubled by the rise of nationalism and separatism.
“Whilst in some parts of the United Kingdom devolution has enabled local people to have greater say over their own destinies, one of the downsides in Scotland has been that it has been misused by the SNP to drive a wedge between those who want to be part of the same country with hundreds of years of history and friendship.
“The PM is very concerned about that. The disaster the Prime Minister is referring to is the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP.”
Jenrick told BBC Breakfast: “I think that any politician who wanted to hold a referendum on a topic like this at this moment in time … is frankly, mad.”
The SNP MP Drew Hendry told the that BBC Johnson had been “caught red-handed with these comments”.
When it was put to him that Tory voices were now claiming the Prime Minister meant the SNP rather than devolution, he said that argument didn’t stand up.
He said: “Clearly they’re desperately spinning to try and get themselves back out of this revelation.
“But even if you take that at face value, effectively what they’re saying is it’s all right for the Scottish people to have devolution, as long as they vote for the Westminster party that we want them to vote for. So I don’t think that holds water.”