Boris Johnson told Scottish Conservatives on Saturday that he wants to shift powers from the devolved Edinburgh parliament to “councils and communities across Scotland”, raising questions over the UK prime minister’s commitment to the constitutional settlement.
In a brief video speech to the virtual Scottish Conservative party conference, Mr Johnson sought to play down remarks earlier in the week in which he told English Tory MPs that the devolution of powers to Scotland had been a “disaster”.
Mr Johnson said his comments on devolution — which caused dismay among Scottish party members — had been leaked “not entirely accurately” and insisted his unvarnished view was that it was the way the Scottish National party had used devolved powers that was the disaster.
But Mr Johnson raised new questions by saying that devolution should be a step to passing power to “local communities and businesses”.
“It’s that kind of localism, which I believe in and I want to take further . . . to devolve more powers from Edinburgh, to the councils and communities across Scotland,” he said.
The prime minister cited a 2016 report by the cross-party Smith Commission that noted “strong desire” for the transfer of powers from the parliament at Holyrood to local communities.
However, under the current constitutional settlement, such transfers would be for the Scottish parliament to decide, not Westminster.
Any attempt by a UK government to force devolution to local councils or communities would be seized on by the Scottish National party and other supporters of independence as a demonstration of the vulnerability of Holyrood’s autonomy.
The Tory government in Westminster has already drawn fire over the UK internal market bill, which it says is needed to preserve economic exchanges, but which is fiercely opposed by Edinburgh and Cardiff. Constitutional experts have said the bill gives London control over a number of devolved policy areas.
Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservatives leader, said Mr Johnson’s remarks tied in to his own calls for a strengthening of local government and that powers returned from the EU after Brexit should not stop at Edinburgh.
Mr Ross cited plans to replace EU regional and social funding with a UK “shared prosperity fund”.
While the Scottish and Welsh governments had central roles in managing the EU funds and choosing how they were spent, the Internal Markets bill gives UK ministers a free hand to allocate the money.
“I know the SNP don’t like it, I know they see that as bypassing the Scottish government, but if [the funding] goes directly into communities and can benefit people, then I think that’s something most individuals would welcome,” Mr Ross said.
The Scottish Conservative party opposed the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999, but overwhelming public support for devolution prompted it to later embrace it and even give it more powers.
In 2016 David Cameron’s Tory government agreed to pass into law Smith Commission recommendations that have substantially increased Holyrood’s control over income tax and other policy areas.
Scottish Tory members say Mr Johnson’s suggestion that devolution has been a disaster has added to the difficulty of stopping what polls suggest will be a landslide victory for the SNP in Holyrood elections next May.
The SNP, which insists victory in May would give it a mandate to hold a second independence referendum, has said the prime minister’s comments showed Conservative commitment to devolution was a facade.
“Worth bookmarking these PM comments for the next time Tories say they’re not a threat to the powers of the Scottish parliament,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and SNP leader, tweeted on Monday.