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Devolution disaster: Six times Boris Johnson blundered on the Union

London calling: Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
London calling: Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Another week, another needless communications disaster for the UK Government.

Clearly unsatisfied with the bad press generated by the free school meals debacle, furlough confusion and Brexit angst, this glutton-for-punishment government has launched head first into another row.

Boris Johnson’s decision to brand devolution a “disaster” and to claim the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake” on a zoom call with Tory MPs has gone down like a cup of cold sick.

Nicola Sturgeon was quick to respond, telling Scots to “bookmark these comments for the next time the Tories say they’re not a threat to the powers of the Scottish Parliament”.

Downing Street street scrambled to correct the PM’s words but, as so often has been the case this year, the damage was already done.

Where else has the PM gone wrong? We take a look below.

Furlough

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

Rishi Sunak’s announcement – to guarantee at least 80% of workers’ wages over the Christmas period and into the New Year – should have been an opportunity to showcase the importance of the Union. Instead, what was exposed was how England-centric and, more specifically, London-centric this administration is.

For weeks leaders in the devolved governments and across Northern England had called for a renewal of the furlough scheme, on the same terms as March.

Those concerns fell on deaf ears until England, or the south of England, joined lockdown.

It was not a good look for a government that claims to operate on a “one nation” basis and it also created an open goal for those questioning the future of the Union.

Free school meals

Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.

Perhaps the biggest own goal this year was Number 10’s refusal to provide free school meals for kids down south over the Christmas break.

Not content with being bested by Manchester United ace Marcus Rashford once, Johnson’s team were again nutmegged last month. They knew what Rashford was capable of and the support he has across the country but still they dug in and opposed offering food vouchers to vulnerable kids.

Worse still, unlike Rashford’s campaign for meals over the summer in which Johnson agreed relatively quickly to provide food vouchers, this time around Number 10 forced MPs to actively oppose Christmas meals in the Commons.

A vote is one thing, but some of the speeches from Tory MPs during that debate can only be described as deplorable.

Backbencher Brendan Clarke-Smith argued against the proposal by saying he did not believe in “nationalising children”. He told the Commons: “Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?”.

Johnson’s administration did the inevitable U-turn last week, but the damage was done.

Cummings and goings

Dominic Cummings.

Who can forget Dominic Cummings’ 260-mile trip from London to Durham at the height of lockdown.

Mr Cummings said he believed he was acting “reasonably” and within the law to travel to his parents’ country estate and dismissed accusations that it’s “one rule for him and another for everybody else”.

The former aide, in a memorable exchange in the Downing Street rose garden, also tried to explain away his decision to drive to beauty spot Barnard Castle, saying he needed “to test his eyesight” after suffering Covid-19 symptoms.

Johnson’s decision to keep Cummings on undermined public health messaging and also put the UK Government in stark contrast with Nicola Sturgeon’s administration, where Catherine Calderwood was sacked from her role as chief medical officer for Scotland after breaching rules.

Covid confusion

Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In a host of policy fields most affected by Covid-19 – including health, social care and education – the UK Government is, in effect, the government of England, since the devolved governments are responsible for them elsewhere.

Yet throughout the crisis, English MPs and Whitehall have displayed a striking and sustained inability to name England as the object of government policy in these areas.

This misunderstanding has had a dire impact on messaging and communication right in the middle of a crisis, something Nicola Sturgeon has said could have cost lives.

Brexit

Whatever happened to the oven-ready deal? The no ifs, no buts trade deal deadline of October 15 is now all but a distant memory.

We’re told this week is the final round of talks, but there’s talk about talks next week. Give us strength.

Businesses are told to get ready, but get ready for what? How can firms put together a response if the shape of a trade deal is still not clear?

Scotland overwhelmingly voted against Brexit and the Scottish Government has consistently opposed the direction of trade talks with the EU, but that has rarely been reflected at the negotiating table. Johnson’s absolutist approach to Brexit might please his backbenchers, but it has alienated many Scots.

The vault

Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Being a former journalist, there is a vault of opinion pieces and columns in which Johnson has spouted off about Scotland.

In an interview with us last year, Johnson said he was “sorry” for any offence caused by the pieces that likened being a Scottish MP to having a “political disability” and stated that “government by a Scot is just not conceivable”.

But as quick as an apology is given, another comment is discovered. Take this quote from 2012 when Johnson was London mayor: “A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde”.

It would be easy to draw a line under such remarks, if Johnson stopped making them.

His latest “devolution disaster” comments will no doubt form part of an SNP collage that will be used to fight next year’s Holyrood elections.

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