SNP ‘mad’ to want new independence referendum, says Tory minister defending Boris Johnson on devolution

Robert Jenrick claims PM’s remarks on devolution ‘disaster’ have been misunderstood

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 17 November 2020 10:45
SNP 'mad' to want second referendum says Jenrick

One of Boris Johnson’s cabinet ministers has sought to play down the prime minister’s reported remarks calling Scottish devolution a “disaster” – claiming the comments were taken out of context.

However, his communities secretary Robert Jenrick risked inflaming the escalating row by saying the SNP was “frankly mad” to want another independence referendum during the coronavirus pandemic.

The minister was asked if devolution in the UK had indeed been a “disaster”, following reports Mr Johnson had described it as such in a virtual meeting of Tory MPs on Monday evening.

“No, and that’s not what the prime minister was saying on the call that he had last night. The prime minister has always supported devolution,” Mr Jenrick told the BBC’s Breakfast.

“What he does feel strongly … is that devolution in Scotland has facilitated the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP, and that that’s trying to break apart the United Kingdom,” Mr Jenrick added. He called the possibility of a breakaway “dangerous”.

Mr Johnson also referred to devolution as “Tony Blair’s worst mistake” during his meeting with dozens of Tory backbenchers, according to The Sun.  

Downing Street did not deny the newspaper’s report, but rowed back on the interpretation of Mr Johnson’s words – insisting he had been referring to the SNP’s running of Scotland.

Asked if the SNP would be stopped from holding an independence referendum if they won next year’s Scottish elections, Mr Jenrick said the party should be held to its claims that the last plebiscite was a “once in a generation” event.

He added: “I also think, frankly, that any politician who wanted to hold a referendum on a topic like this at this moment in time, you know, is frankly, mad … We’re in the middle of a very serious health situation, a pandemic.”

Mr Jenrick also told Sky News the SNP chiefs were “frankly deluding themselves” about a second referendum, “because they should be focusing on the priorities of the public”.

The SNP has seized upon the “disaster” comment, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeting: “Worth bookmarking these PM comments for the next time Tories say they’re not a threat to the powers of the Scottish parliament.”

The party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford added: “The Tory mask has well-and-truly slipped, after Boris Johnson was caught red-handed claiming that Scottish devolution is a mistake.”

Ian Murray, Labour’s shadow Scottish minister, was quick to condemn the reported remarks too – describing devolution as “one of Labour’s proudest achievements”.

The Conservative leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, contradicted the prime minister’s reported remarks. “Devolution has not been a disaster,” he said on Twitter. “The SNP’s non-stop obsession with another referendum – above jobs, schools and everything else – has been a disaster.”

The party’s former Scottish secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was more critical of Mr Johnson on Tuesday morning – saying his comments were “typical” of the “rather loose language” the PM tends to use on important subjects.

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