Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the work their governments had done in tackling coronavirus before claiming the SNP had made a “disaster” of devolution.
Addressing the Scottish Conservative conference via a remotely-recorded speech, Mr Johnson moved to distance himself from remarks made earlier this week in which he claimed devolving power from Westminster had been a “disaster”.
He said he would not want to “undermine” devolution and had seen its benefits while Mayor of London, before calling for further localism and the transferal of powers from centralised government to local authorities.
Hope for return to normality
The prime minister said the “political cudgels” would be raised again, but only after the pandemic had been brought under control across the UK.
He said: “My comments on devolution have been widely reported this past week, but since no press were in the room, I’ll tell it to you straight: the way the SNP has handled devolution in Scotland has been a disaster – from plummeting education standards, low business confidence and the lowest satisfaction in public services ever – their record is abysmal.
“However, just because I criticise devolved performance, does not mean I want to end or undermine devolution.
“As a former Mayor of London, I know how effective devolved powers can be, for example in making transport greener and in tackling crime; devolution should not be used by politicians as a wall to break an area of the UK away from the rest, it should be used as a step, to pass power down to local communities and businesses to make their lives better.
“It is this localism in which I believe and want to further, following the agreement made at the time of the Smith Commission in 2016 to not only devolve more powers to Edinburgh, which we have done but devolve more powers from Edinburgh to the councils and communities across Scotland.”
Virus does not recognise borders
Mr Johnson — who has spent the past week isolating after coming into contact with a positive case five months after being admitted to ICU with the disease — thanked the country for “sticking by the guidance and following the rules” in their efforts to tackle the coronavirus.
He added: “At this time there simply no room for division or distraction over the constitution.
“In order for us to tackle the shared and common threat that is Covid-19, the focus separation must end — and for it to end, so must the division.
“So I would like to thank the Scottish Government for the way it has worked with the UK Government to try and tackle this virus over these past months and appeal to them to continue working with us, making use of the vaccine stocks, tests kits and new technology that come from being part of what is still one of the world’s leading scientific superpowers.
“Covid-19 doesn’t care about constitutions and whatever our political differences, we all need to work together at this time to protect the health and jobs of people in Scotland.”
SNP depute leader Keith Brown said: “This was a nothing speech that demonstrates exactly how much thought and consideration the Prime Minister really gives to Scotland.
“Zero effort, zero consideration, zero thought, just 10 minutes of hollow nothingness beyond more weasel words of deflection from his blunder in revealing he thinks devolution has been a disaster.
“Instead he should have apologised for insulting the democratic choice of the people of Scotland and for the litany of toxic Tory policies, from austerity to a disastrous Brexit in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
“Once again untrustworthy Johnson has demonstrated the Tories don’t care about the needs of the people of Scotland.
“The only way to properly protect Scotland’s interests is to become an independent, European country.”