David Mundell said Boris Johnson had to “listen to Ruth Davidson” and take her lead on how the Conservative Party and UK government approach Scotland in order to reduce the risk to the Union.
In his first full interview since leaving the cabinet, Mundell also voiced regret about the way Brexit legislation at the heart of the devolution “power grab” row was handled.
In her final months in office, Theresa May’s government hardened its stance against granting the legal powers to hold a second independence referendum.
But Mundell conceded that the next Scottish election would be a “referendum on a referendum”, with the formation of a Unionist government led by Davidson the only way to guarantee another independence vote doesn’t take place.
“There’s nothing inevitable about having a second independence referendum, and certainly not in the short term,” he said. “I do think that the 2021 Scottish parliament elections will be a pivotal moment.
“I regret that, because those elections should be about the Scottish Government’s record on health and education and drugs and all the rest of it, but you can already see the direction of travel, that it is effectively going to be a referendum on a referendum.”
Mundell added: “It’s a very clear message that the way to stop another independence referendum is to ensure a unionist majority in the Scottish parliament in 2021, so that involves Boris backing Ruth to deliver.”
The former Scottish Secretary, who has spent almost his entire time as MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale on the Conservative front bench, said the new Prime Minister had to “listen to Ruth”, having rejected her calls for Mundell to keep his job.
“Ruth is realistic. The Prime Minister picks the cabinet,” he said. “Of course she would have preferred that I stayed in the cabinet, because we have a longstanding and very close relationship… [but] he wanted his own person.”
Mundell stressed the differences between the political cultures in Scotland and the rest of the UK – symbolised by the radically different editorial lines taken by the UK and Scottish editions of the Sun – as he urged Johnson to follow the Scottish Tory leader’s advice.
“There is no doubt that Ruth has transformed Conservative fortunes in Scotland and has a lot of data and facts and experience about how that’s been achieved, and she does want to work with Boris to demonstrate what messages are important in Scotland, what people want from their political leaders, what they want in Scotland, what they want in the UK.
“Scotland is a distinctive political environment… the newspaper environment, the political environment, the political priorities, they’re completely different. That has to be recognised.”
Mundell pledged to hold Johnson to account as a backbencher over his promises to boost UK investment in Scotland and create a “Union unit” to scrutinise government policy – something he told the Prime Minister at the meeting where he was sacked from his job.
“I’ve never asked a PMQ, so I’m quite keen to break my duck… I will have a PMQ submitted every week. I won’t be standing up asking Boris to agree he’s great. It won’t be one of those.”
Mundell cited the 2016 Scotland Act, which devolved income tax and welfare powers to Scotland – “perhaps people feel negatively about it when they’re paying more income tax” – as well as the £1.4bn worth of city-region deals as the highlights of his four years as Scottish Secretary.
“One thing that I hope my successor [Alister Jack] will be able to do is complete that and make sure every part of Scotland has benefitted from a growth deal,” said Mundell. “When I visited the new concert hall in Edinburgh, the site of it, I pushed for that to be included in [the Edinburgh and Southeast Scotland] deal.
“I persuaded the chancellor to back it even though it was devolved spending, so you can make a difference across the whole of Scotland, and that’s what I like to think I’ve done.”
He said he was also proud of boosting the UK government’s promotional work in Scotland from the “pittance” being spent previously, arguing: “The UK government needs to make the case every day for what it does in Scotland, the way the Scottish Government makes the case every day for independence.” A new “hub” at Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh would be a “focal point” boosting awareness of the UK government’s work in Scotland, he added.
Asked what his greatest regret in office was, Mundell joked: “As the 21st century philosopher Adele says, regrets and mistakes are memories made.
“I was very disappointed that we didn’t get Jock the cat into Dover House. It was blocked by health and safety. Once we’re out of the EU we’ll be able to have cats run amok.”
But he admitted that the government mishandled vital Brexit legislation that covered powers in devolved areas returning from Brussels, which led to claims of a “power grab” and a showdown between the Holyrood and Westminster governments in the Supreme Court.
“I take responsibility for the fact that I don’t think we handled the EU Withdrawal Bill as well as we might have done.
“We got there in the end but we had to go quite a circuitous route to do that. We didn’t manage expectations. I didn’t manage expectations.”
Looking back on nine years at the Scotland Office, first as a minister of state before joining the cabinet, Mundell said: “From my recent visit to Boyd Tunnock’s factory, which is real-life Willy Wonka land, to attending the March of Light in Budapest to commemorate Jane Haining’s death in the Holocaust, to seeing our new building grow in Edinburgh, getting to parts of Scotland I hadn’t otherwise been to, and our visits overseas where I really got to understand how strong Scotland’s brand is… I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to serve, and I’m very grateful to the civil servants who supported me in the Scotland Office.
“I’m the longest serving Scottish Secretary for 25 years, since Ian Lang… I think the office has gotten stronger. I don’t think the SNP would be calling for it to be abolished if it wasn’t doing something right. So I take that as a compliment.”