Boris Johnson has told the SNP that the coronavirus pandemic means the Scottish and UK governments need to work together to “rebuild from its ravages” and give people a “better, brighter future”.
With the UK and much of the world dealing with the ongoing health crisis, he insisted “frankly” that this was not the time for “division or distraction about our national constitution”.
The Prime Minister, who was addressing the Scottish Conservative virtual conference, told Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP: “To tackle the shared and common threat that is Covid-19, the focus on separation has got to stop.”
His speech came just days after he was said to have told Tory MPs in the north of England that devolution to Scotland had been a “disaster”.
Johnson – who is currently self-isolating – insisted that his remarks had been reported “not entirely accurately”.
Instead, he said his “round, unvarnished view” was that “the way the SNP have handled devolution in Scotland has been a disaster”.
Under the SNP, he said, Scotland had seen “plummeting education standards, low business confidence and the lowest satisfaction in public services ever”, with the Prime Minister branding this “an abysmal record”.
He told the conference: “Just because I have criticised the performance of devolution does not mean I want to oppose devolution as a concept. I’m a former mayor of London, I know how effective devolved powers can be.”
But he argued: “The key is to have policies to show how devolution can work for Scotland, for the people in Scotland, rather than the SNP obsession with making devolution work against the rest of the UK.”
Johnson thanked the Scottish First Minister and her government for the way they had worked together with UK ministers and politicians from the other devolved administrations during the pandemic – which he described as a “plague”.
But he also said that rival politicians in different parts of the UK needed to continue to work in partnership “making use of the vaccine stocks, test kits and new technology that come from being part of what is one of the world’s leading scientific superpowers”.
Addressing supporters at the online conference, Johnson insisted: “Covid-19 doesn’t care about constitutional arrangements and whatever our political differences.
“We all need to work together at this time to protect the health and jobs of the people of Scotland.”
Despite the “last very difficult eight months”, he added that there was now “hope on the horizon”.
And the Prime Minister was clear: “The best way to take that hope, and turn it into a better, brighter future we all want to see, is to continue to work together.”