Rishi Sunak rejects calls for more devolved powers for Scotland, saying SNP does not always 'know best'
The Prime Minister, who was attending both the Scottish and Welsh Conservative party conferences in Glasgow and Newport on Friday, told delegates it was not the time to begin discussions on devolving additional responsibilities to the Scottish Government.
He labelled Holyrood the most devolved “assembly” anywhere in the world and said he wanted devolution to be “as close to people as possible”.
Critics said the comments demonstrated Mr Sunak and the Conservative party mask had “slipped” in regards to its “hostility to devolution”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, said the Prime Minister should be apologising to families for the pain of the cost-of-living crisis.
In only his second time in Scotland as Prime Minister, Mr Sunak attacked the SNP’s record and quashed suggestions Holyrood should have more powers.
He said: “We can't devolve and forget. Scotland is already the most devolved assembly anywhere in the world. All this talk of needing any more powers is clearly not appropriate.
"The SNP and the Scottish Government don’t use all the powers they already have, so we shouldn’t start talking about any more. We believe devolution should be as close to people as possible."
The Prime Minister added: “In the same way that Westminster doesn't always know best, it's not the case in Scotland that the SNP and Holyrood always knows best. What we believe is we can devolve power to local communities, and that's what we've done.”
The Prime Minister said he was confident he would meet five key aims he set out earlier this year, adding that “Scotland is at the heart of my plans for delivery”.
Mr Sunak also referenced the UK Government’s levelling up programme, which involves local authorities bidding for funding directly from the UK Government, bypassing Holyrood in the process. This, the Prime Minister said, was “real devolution in action”.
During his speech, the Conservative leader also joked about the ongoing police investigation into the SNP, quipping the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon was learning to drive because “someone’s got to drive that motorhome after all”.
The Prime Minister went on to highlight Conservative opposition to the Scottish Government’s proposed deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks cans and bottles as showing the Tories are “the ones who have got the Scottish people’s interests at heart”.
First Minister Humza Yousaf has been forced to delay the launch of the scheme, pushing it back from August to March next year, amid concerns from businesses about how it would operate. The governments are locked in a row over a key exemption to the Internal Market Act, required for the DRS to go ahead.
Mr Sunak also spoke about the war in Ukraine having highlighted problems with “being dependent on places like Russia for fossil fuels”, the other political parties “think we should ignore what we have at home”.
Rival parties’ focus on renewable energy, rather than oil and gas from the North Sea, “ignores the economic benefits, the jobs, the energy security and increases our reliance on foreign dictators for the energy we know we need for the next couple of decades”, the Prime Minister added.
Scottish Tories leader Douglas Ross, speaking to reporters after his keynote speech on Friday afternoon, agreed with Mr Sunak that no further powers should be devolved to Scotland.
He said: “What we’ve seen repeatedly is powers that have been devolved from the UK Parliament to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, some of those have been sent back. So actually the people that are rolling back are the SNP, who can’t even manage the powers they’ve got at the moment.”
He added: “The problem is not devolution, the problem is the way the nationalists are handling a devolved government and their failure on so many areas. I think we should be using the powers we’ve got at the moment before we even start to look at devolving more.”
Mr Ross was also asked whether the Prime Minister was truly a supporter of devolution, following leading Tory peer Lord Frost calling on devolution to be rolled back in a column for The Telegraph.
The Scottish Tory leader said: “He [Mr Sunak] absolutely is a supporter of devolution, but he agrees that the problem here at the moment is the way the nationalists run this devolved parliament and devolved government.
"They are not focused on the issues they should be, they’re not delivering for the people of Scotland and they are trying to manufacture grievance in the same way Nicola Sturgeon did when she was First Minister, Humza Yousaf has continued that.”
Mr Flynn said the Tories had “no mandate in Scotland”, and called on Mr Sunak to apologise for the “disastrous mess” caused by his predecessor Liz Truss’s leadership and Brexit.
He added: "The SNP is the only party that can be trusted to stand up for Scotland and defend the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The Tories and pro-Brexit Labour Party are indistinguishable from each other as they ramp up their attacks on devolution and deny Scotland's right to choose our future."
Ross Greer, finance spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said the speech was “predictably terrible”, which “showed a total contempt” for Scots.
He also reacted with anger about the comments on devolving powers, stating: “The Tory mask has definitely slipped when it comes to their hostility to devolution. Like Lord Frost before him, the Prime Minister said the quiet part out loud.
"This isn't new. The reality is that over recent years we have seen escalating attempts from London to block and obstruct our Parliament, whether it is on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that MSPs overwhelmingly passed, or our deposit return scheme.”
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the Prime Minister’s speech was “without vision and without energy”. “The people of Scotland know what this Tory Government means – sleaze at the highest level while people go hungry and face soaring bills,” she added.
Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat Scottish affairs spokesperson, called the comments on devolution “patronising”.
She said: “Patronising comments like this just play into the constant constitutional confrontations between the Tories and SNP, which do nothing to help anybody.
"Devolution is the settled will of the people of Scotland. These are the same people who are demanding action on issues like sewage dumping, failed ferry contracts, the NHS in crisis and the cost of living.
"It’s time both of our governments quit the bickering and got on with the day job.”
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