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PM's unforced error knocks revamp off course

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

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It was only on Sunday that the prime minister was hoping to use this week as a reset, relaunch, even rebrand, of his government after the crazy B-movie version of House of Cards that's been playing out in the last few days.

But that night Boris Johnson got caught up in the realities of coronavirus again, being "pinged" after a meeting with a group of half a dozen MPs, one of whom later tested positive, confining him to Downing Street for the next fortnight.

But it's his own gaffe on Monday that will knock his planned return to calm off course.

  • Johnson 'called Scottish devolution a disaster'

On a call with a powerful group of northern Tory MPs, the prime minister was asked about devolution. It has groaned and strained under the stress of the pandemic over the last few months, while relations with the other UK governments, as well as some city-region mayors, have been far from straightforward.

But it now seems, as the Sun first reported, that Mr Johnson did not just say that things had been a bit tricky. Downing Street is not denying the suggestion that he said it had been a "disaster north of the border".

This comes six months before vital elections right across the UK, important particularly in Scotland. It is just when the SNP has been starting to warm up its campaign, and just when discussions about how the UK government ought to respond are taking place too. You can read more about that here.

It is one thing - and, of course, legitimate - for political rivals to criticise each other. But to suggest the way that Scotland has been run for more than a decade is a "disaster" is quite another.

And the worry among Scottish Tories is the implication that Mr Johnson's understanding of the political situation is far from complete.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionDouglas Ross was more polite than some of his colleagues about the PM

The notion of devolution used to be controversial in Scotland, and the Tories used to oppose it. But that's not been the case for a long time.

Even the UK government's own website says officially that "devolution has made a real difference to the lives of people in Scotland - and recognises the wishes of the people to have more say over matters that affect them".

Within a few minutes, no surprise, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon responded to what had been reported - frankly a political gift for her to amplify her claims that Mr Johnson doesn't understand Scotland.

Shortly afterwards, the new-ish Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, tried, sort of, to justify what had been said.

His colleagues are less diplomatic in private. One veteran Scottish Tory told me: "This is dire - it's totally out of touch and reflects a Westminster-centric view of 1992, not 2020."

Another said: "The anger tonight is palpable and the worst I've ever seen towards a Tory PM."

There's a sense that the prime minister doesn't have that long to get a grip of the government after a crazy few days.

An unforced error on a vital issue like this is hardly likely to help.

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