Downing Street has been forced to disown comments attributed to a senior Number 10 insider after they sparked outrage by questioning the impartiality of the Scottish judiciary.
In a shock ruling, a panel of three judges at the Court of Session - including Lord Carloway, the most senior judge in Scotland - said Boris Johnson’s government had acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament.
Responding to the judgement, which is being appealed to the Supreme Court, an anonymous Downing Street source was quoted by a Sun saying: "We note that last week the High Court in London did not rule that prorogation was unlawful. The legal activists choose the Scottish courts for a reason.”
It prompted a furious reaction from the SNP and Scottish Conservatives, and forced ministers and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman to distance themselves from the comments.
Asked if the government believed the ruling was politically motivated, the Downing Street spokesman said: “Absolutely not. We have absolute respect for the independence of the judiciary.”
Earlier, Robert Buckland, who has a legal duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary as Lord Chancellor, tweeted: “Our judges are renowned around the world for their excellence and impartiality and I have total confidence in their independence in every case.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon posted on social media that the comments were “pitiful, pathetic and desperate”.
Gavin Barwell, the Downing Street chief of staff under Theresa May, tweeted that “this is a very unwise road for a party that believes in a) the Union and b) the rule of law to go down”.
And there was anger, too, from Scottish Conservatives, with interim leader Jackson Carlaw tweeting: “Let’s be very clear & I don’t much care where the sources are from who might suggest otherwise - we have absolute confidence in the independence and integrity of the Scottish judiciary.”
Scottish Tory leadership contenders also weighed in. The party’s constitution spokesman, Adam Tomkins MSP, posted on social media: “To politicians who don’t like court judgments: don’t attack the judges or the independence of the legal system. Don’t ever do that. Appeal, test your legal arguments in a superior court. Why does this even need saying?”
And fellow MSP Donald Cameron wrote: “Having practised for over a decade in Scotland's courts, I have only ever known our judges to be politically impartial and independent. To suggest otherwise is both ignorant and dangerous.”
Petitioners had originally brought their to the Court of Session in Edinburgh in August because English courts were not sitting during the summer holiday period.