Scots Tories 'might split off' after PM's devolution 'disaster' slip

Scottish Tories ‘might split’ from party in England after Boris called devolution a ‘disaster’ amid fury that the PM is ‘kicking the legs out’ from efforts to fight the SNP with series of blunders

  • Devolution has been a ‘disaster’ and biggest mistake made by Tony Blair, PM said
  • The Prime Minister made the controversial comments in a Zoom call with MPs 
  • Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon immediately seized on the comments 

Scottish Tories today warned they might end up splitting from the party in England amid fury at Boris Johnson ‘kicking the legs out’ from efforts to fight the SNP.

The PM is engaged in desperate damage limitation after venting his frustration at surging support for independence north of the border. 

In comments leaked from a private Zoom meeting with MPs, he branded devolution a ‘disaster’ and attacked Tony Blair for handing powers to Holyrood more than 20 years ago.

A jubilant Nicola Sturgeon – who wants to use elections north of the border in May as a platform for forcing a fresh independence referendum – immediately claimed Mr Johnson wanted to claw back control to Westminster. 

Tories raged about Mr Johnson’s ‘loose language’, and the leader of the party in Scotland, Douglas Ross, demanded a showdown phone call with him.


The Tory leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross (pictured left)), demanded a showdown phone call with Boris Johnson (right) after his remarks about devolution being a ‘disaster’

A jubilant Nicola Sturgeon (pictured yesterday) – who wants to use elections north of the border in May as a platform for forcing a fresh independence referendum – has claimed Mr Johnson wants to claw back control to Westminster

Independence campaigners immediately seized on the PM’s comments to make the case for splitting up the UK

How the Union ended up on the brink of disaster after more than 400 years 

1603 

James IV of Scotland becomes James I of England, after succeeding Elizabeth I. From this point on the nations have the same monarch.

1707 

England and Scotland are formally joined in the Act of Union. 

1934 

The Scottish Nationalist Party is formed, calling for the creation of a separate Scottish assembly. 

1942 

The SNP switches to demand secession from England, causing some senior figures to leave.

1966 

Following the discovery of lucratice oil fields in the North Sea, the SNP secures its first MP.

1968 

Tory PM Ted Heath responds to rising nationalism by committing to create a Scottish assembly. However, he does not follow through on the commitment.

1979

James Callaghan’s Labour government passes the Scotland Act, which laid the ground for a Scottish assembly to be established.

However, a last-minute amendment made it a condition that at least 40 per cent of Scots back the idea in a referendum.

Although the subsequent vote endorsed the change, the threshold was not reached so devolution did not happen.

May 1997 

Tony Blair and New Labour win a landslide, sweeping the Conservatives out of Scottish seats and promising devolution. 

Mr Blair hopes that giving more powers will halt the SNP’s independence momentum. 

He puts Donald Dewar in charge of creating the new structure and holding a referendum. 

September 1997

Mr Blair’s devolution push comes to fruition when Scots back creation of a Scottish assembly with tax-raising powers in a referendum. 

1999 

The Scottish Parliament opens, with Alex Salmond saying it is a major step on the road to total separation.

2011 

The SNP secures a surprise overall majority at Holyrood, despite the electoral arrangements being designed to avoid one party being dominant.

Mr Salmond declares he has a mandate for a referendum on independence.

September 18, 2014

After desperate efforts by unionists to head off a referendum, one is held. The SNP complains that the ‘Better Together’ campaign deploys ‘Project Fear’.

There are threats to stop Scotland using the pound after independence, cut it adrift from the Bank of England, and warnings that it will not be able to stay in the EU. 

Tony Blair avoids campaigning for the union, in an acknowledgement of the depth of his unpopularity after the Iraq War. 

Both Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, who later takes over as SNP leader, say that the referendum will settle the issue ‘for a generation’. 

The unionists emerge victorious by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. David Cameron later indiscreetly reveals that the Queen ‘purred down the phone’ at him when informed of the result.

June 23, 2016

The UK votes to leave the EU in a referendum, but Scotland votes strongly to retain ties with the bloc.  

The SNP seizes on the Brexit vote to renew their push, saying circumstance have dramatically changed. 

January 31, 2020

After years of bitter wrangling with Brussels and in Westminster, and Boris Johnson winning an 80 majority at a pre-Christmas election, the UK finally leaves the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon steps up her calls for an independence referendum vote to be held this year.

March 2020 

As the world is hammered by the coronavirus, Ms Sturgeon declares that she is putting her independence drive on hold.

The devolution settlement granted Scotland control of public health issues, and that power has been boosted by new pandemic emergency laws rushed through Westminster. 

But critics accuse Ms Sturgeon of exploiting the crisis by refusing to move in step with the UK government. 

She complains that Westminster is denying her funding, even though Scotland has received more than £7.5billion extra, on top of access to national schemes like furlough.

October 2020

A poll puts support for independence at a new record high of 58 per cent, the latest in a series of surveys to show a surge in separatism.  

November 2020 

The SNP says it wants to hold a referendum next year if – as polls suggest will happen – it wins a majority at Holyrood elections in May. 

Mr Johnson insists he will not allow a new referendum, but there are fears that resisting will merely fuel separatist sentiment. 

Mr Johnson’s remarks came in a call with 60 MPs which he made over a video call from Downing Street self-isolation.

‘Devolution has been a disaster north of the border,’ he said, adding that it was former prime minister Mr Blair’s ‘biggest mistake’ when it was introduced in the late 1990s. 

Sources close to Mr Johnson tried to limit the fallout by insisting that he was referring to the way devolution has been ‘used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK’, but Downing Street did not deny the leaked comments.

But it was another hammer blow for the PM’s desperate effort to ‘reset’ his government after a meltdown that saw maverick chief aide Dominic Cummings ousted.

Mr Johnson, who has been left a prisoner in his Downing Street flat for the rest of the month after a maskless meeting an MP who later tested positive for coronavirus, suffered a huge backlash from unionists.

Mr Ross, who is taking charge of his first Scottish Tory conference this week, has already been trying to distance himself from the party in England, admitting that Mr Johnson is a liability north of the border and Ms Sturgeon is a better communicator. 

He has insisted he does not support a split from the wider Conservatives, and yesterday tried to gloss over the tensions. 

‘The PM believes in devolution. The problem has been the SNP’s obsession with separating Scotland from the rest of the UK,’ Mr Ross said. 

But Scottish Tory insiders told the Daily Telegraph the idea of a breakaway party would ‘come back’ after next May’s Holyrood election if Mr Johnson continued to ‘kick the legs out from under’ efforts to fight the SNP.

One senior Scottish Tory told the newspaper: ‘Boris’s comments epitomised the problem that whatever we do in Scotland is undercut by Westminster.’ 

Alarm has been growing in Westminster at the surge in support for independence, with one recent poll putting it at 58 per cent. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Brexit tensions have been credited with the shift.

But the inability of unionists to mobilise and get across their messages about the benefits of keeping the centuries-old alliance has also been identified as a problem.

Many MPs were angry at ‘Little Englanders’ in the PM’s top team, and had hoped that Mr Johnson’s own ‘passion’ for the union would reassert itself with the departure of Mr Cummings and his allies. 

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said at the weekend that a second vote on splitting the UK ‘must’ happen in 2021 – insisting it had already been delayed from this year.

He said Ms Sturgeon will have grounds to hold a referendum ‘quickly’ if the SNP wins Holyrood elections.

No10 said Mr Johnson would be standing up for the majority verdict at the last ‘once-in-a-generation’ independence referendum, where 55 per cent of those who voted decided in favour of Scotland remaining part of the UK.

‘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.’

 

A recent poll outlined the scale of the battle Mr Johnson faces to keep the UK united in the face of Brexit and coronavirus. 

The Ipsos Mori research for STV last month found that among those who would be likely to vote in an independence referendum, 58 per cent say they would vote Yes, while 42 per cent would vote No.

At the last referendum in 2014, 55 per cent of Scots voted to stay a part of the UK, with 45 per cent backing secession. 

Additionally, almost two thirds (64 per cent) of Scots believe that Mr Johnson should permit a fresh vote within the next five years if the SNP wins a majority in Holyrood elections next May. This is something he has ruled out.

The UK government has increasingly been on a war footing against Ms Sturgeon with the pressure rising for a referendum – but MPs and advisers are in despair at the lack of a plausible strategy.

The looming threat of Scotland going independent is one of the reasons many Tories think Mr Johnson might not be in Downing Street much longer, despite winning an historic 80-strong majority at the election less than a year ago. 

It emerged last month that an assessment put together by key Tory advisers had warned Mr Johnson cannot simply keep saying ‘no’ to the SNP leader’s demands for another referendum.

The document from Hanbury strategy bemoaned the ‘vacuum of leadership’ within the unionist movement – and suggests that the PM will need to offer Ms Sturgeon more powers to stave off a catastrophic break-up of the UK.

Hanbury is run by former government special advisers Ameet Gill and Paul Stephenson. Mr Stephenson worked on the Vote Leave campaign, and was part of the Conservative election machine last December. 

Mr Blackford’s call for a referendum to happen next year sparked widespread anger at the weekend. 

Critics branded the push ‘disrespectful’, with former PM Gordon Brown insisting the SNP should instead focus on ‘healing’ after the pandemic. 

An Ipsos Mori poll last moth suggested that support for Scottish independence had hit 58 per cent – the highest on record

Boris Johnson said devolution was former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘biggest mistake’ when it was introduced in the late 1990s’

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