Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer traded brutal blows over the threat of Scottish independence today at an historic first ‘virtual’ PMQs.
Being grilled by video link from self-isolation in Downing Street, Mr Johnson faced a welter of criticism over his comments that devolution north of the border had been a ‘disaster’ and was Tony Blair’s ‘biggest mistake’.
The Labour leader, in the chamber in person, jibed that Mr Johnson’s loose talk was helping ‘fuel the break up of the UK’.
‘The biggest threat to the UK is the PM every time he opens his mouth on this,’ Sir Keir said.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford also seized on the row, saying the Tories’ ‘mask had slipped’. But Mr Johnson retorted that the Scottish people did not want independence and would ‘almost certainly’ reject it again’.
Sitting in front of a pale No10-branded background in a suit and tie, Mr Johnson adapted the traditional opening line about his meetings this morning to say he had been attending ‘virtual’ meetings.
But there were glitches in the technology, with the PM plagued by a tunny microphone, ending up talking over the Speaker at times, and struggling to be heard.
Some Twitter users suggested that the PM resembled the Wizard of Oz, as an image of his face appeared on big screens above the heads of MPs.
The first ‘virtual’ PMQs went ahead despite Boris Johnson being self-isolated, and glitches in the technology, with the PM ending up talking over the Speaker at times and struggling to be heard
Sitting in front of a pale No10-branded background in a suit and tie, Boris Johnson adapted the tradition PMQs opening line having had meetings this morning to say he had been attending ‘virtual’ meetings
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, in the chamber in person, jibed that Mr Johnson’s loose talk was helping ‘fuel the break up of the UK’
Some Twitter users suggested that the PM resembled the Wizard of Oz, as an image of his face appeared on big screens above the heads of MPs
Boris Johnson is isolating at his No11 flat after a mask-free meeting last Thursday with Tory MP Lee Anderson, who later tested positive
Timeline of the No10 coronavirus drama
Thursday, November 12
Boris Johnson meets with a group of northern Tory MPs in Downing Street. They are pictured in photographs standing relatively close together, and not wearing masks.
Morning of Friday, November 13
Baroness Dido Harding is pictured arriving in Downing Street for meetings.
Evening of Sunday, November 15
No10 announces that the PM has gone into self-isolation after one of the MPs he met, Lee Anderson, tested positive for coronavirus. He does not have any symptoms.
His isolation is expected to end at some point on November 26, although aides do not clarify the exact time.
Monday, November 16
It emerges that many of the other Tory MPs in the group have also gone into self-isolation. Mr Johnson posts a video saying he is ‘bursting with antibodies’ and feeling well.
Tuesday, November 17
Downing Street reveals that the PM has taken a test and was negative.
It emerges No10 has been part of a trial of the rapid lateral flow kits, which is why he was able to access a test with no symptoms.
Morning of Wednesday, November 18
Baroness Harding reveals she has been ordered to self-isolate.
The image of the notification from the app shows her quarantine is due to end at midnight on the morning of Friday, November 27, shortly after the PM is due to be freed.
Mr Johnson is engaged in desperate damage limitation after venting his frustration at surging support for independence north of the border.
In comments leaked from a private Zoom meeting with MPs, he branded devolution a ‘disaster’ and attacked Tony Blair for handing powers to Holyrood more than 20 years ago.
A jubilant Nicola Sturgeon – who wants to use elections north of the border in May as a platform for forcing a fresh independence referendum – immediately claimed Mr Johnson wanted to claw back control to Westminster.
Tories raged about Mr Johnson’s ‘loose language’, and the leader of the party in Scotland, Douglas Ross, demanded a showdown phone call with him.
In the Commons clashes this afternoon, Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government. Until now, whatever our disagreements, there has been a very broad consensus about devolution.
‘So why did the Prime Minister tell his MPs this week that Scottish devolution is, in his words, a disaster?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I think what has unquestionably been a disaster is the way in which the Scottish National Party have taken and used devolution as means not to improve the lives of their constituents, not to address their health concerns, not to improve education in Scotland, but constantly – and I know this is actually a point of view that is shared by (Sir Keir Starmer) – but constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country.
‘To turn devolution, otherwise a sound policy for which I myself personally benefited when I was running London – but turn devolution into a mission to break up the UK.
‘That, in my view, would be a disaster.’
Mr Blackford also waded in, saying: ‘His attack on devolution wasn’t just a slip of the tongue, it was a slip of the Tory mask.’
Mr Johnson retorted that the strength of the union had been a massive boon in the coronavirus pandemic.
But in an apparent nod to polls showing a spike in support for independence, Mr Johnson said the Scottish people would ‘almost certainly’ reject the SNP’s push if there was a referendum.
‘I believe it is something that they would almost certainly reject,’ he said.
Mr Johnson’s remarks came in a call with 60 MPs which he made over a video call from Downing Street self-isolation.
‘Devolution has been a disaster north of the border,’ he said, adding that it was former prime minister Mr Blair’s ‘biggest mistake’ when it was introduced in the late 1990s.
Sources close to Mr Johnson tried to limit the fallout by insisting that he was referring to the way devolution has been ‘used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK’, but Downing Street did not deny the leaked comments.
But it was another hammer blow for the PM’s desperate effort to ‘reset’ his government after a meltdown that saw maverick chief aide Dominic Cummings ousted.
Mr Johnson, who has been left a prisoner in his Downing Street flat for the rest of the month after a maskless meeting an MP who later tested positive for coronavirus, suffered a huge backlash from unionists.
Mr Ross, who is taking charge of his first Scottish Tory conference this week, has already been trying to distance himself from the party in England, admitting that Mr Johnson is a liability north of the border and Ms Sturgeon is a better communicator.
He has insisted he does not support a split from the wider Conservatives, and yesterday tried to gloss over the tensions.
‘The PM believes in devolution. The problem has been the SNP’s obsession with separating Scotland from the rest of the UK,’ Mr Ross said.
But Scottish Tory insiders told the Daily Telegraph the idea of a breakaway party would ‘come back’ after next May’s Holyrood election if Mr Johnson continued to ‘kick the legs out from under’ efforts to fight the SNP.
One senior Scottish Tory told the newspaper: ‘Boris’s comments epitomised the problem that whatever we do in Scotland is undercut by Westminster.’
Independence campaigners immediately seized on the PM’s comments to make the case for splitting up the UK
The Tory leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross (pictured left)), demanded a showdown phone call with Boris Johnson (right) after his remarks about devolution being a ‘disaster’
How the Union ended up on the brink of disaster after more than 400 years
James IV of Scotland becomes James I of England, after succeeding Elizabeth I. From this point on the nations have the same monarch.
England and Scotland are formally joined in the Act of Union.
The Scottish Nationalist Party is formed, calling for the creation of a separate Scottish assembly.
The SNP switches to demand secession from England, causing some senior figures to leave.
Following the discovery of lucratice oil fields in the North Sea, the SNP secures its first MP.
Tory PM Ted Heath responds to rising nationalism by committing to create a Scottish assembly. However, he does not follow through on the commitment.
James Callaghan’s Labour government passes the Scotland Act, which laid the ground for a Scottish assembly to be established.
However, a last-minute amendment made it a condition that at least 40 per cent of Scots back the idea in a referendum.
Although the subsequent vote endorsed the change, the threshold was not reached so devolution did not happen.
Tony Blair and New Labour win a landslide, sweeping the Conservatives out of Scottish seats and promising devolution.
Mr Blair hopes that giving more powers will halt the SNP’s independence momentum.
He puts Donald Dewar in charge of creating the new structure and holding a referendum.
Mr Blair’s devolution push comes to fruition when Scots back creation of a Scottish assembly with tax-raising powers in a referendum.
The Scottish Parliament opens, with Alex Salmond saying it is a major step on the road to total separation.
The SNP secures a surprise overall majority at Holyrood, despite the electoral arrangements being designed to avoid one party being dominant.
Mr Salmond declares he has a mandate for a referendum on independence.
September 18, 2014
After desperate efforts by unionists to head off a referendum, one is held. The SNP complains that the ‘Better Together’ campaign deploys ‘Project Fear’.
There are threats to stop Scotland using the pound after independence, cut it adrift from the Bank of England, and warnings that it will not be able to stay in the EU.
Tony Blair avoids campaigning for the union, in an acknowledgement of the depth of his unpopularity after the Iraq War.
Both Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, who later takes over as SNP leader, say that the referendum will settle the issue ‘for a generation’.
The unionists emerge victorious by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. David Cameron later indiscreetly reveals that the Queen ‘purred down the phone’ at him when informed of the result.
June 23, 2016
The UK votes to leave the EU in a referendum, but Scotland votes strongly to retain ties with the bloc.
The SNP seizes on the Brexit vote to renew their push, saying circumstance have dramatically changed.
January 31, 2020
After years of bitter wrangling with Brussels and in Westminster, and Boris Johnson winning an 80 majority at a pre-Christmas election, the UK finally leaves the EU.
Nicola Sturgeon steps up her calls for an independence referendum vote to be held this year.
As the world is hammered by the coronavirus, Ms Sturgeon declares that she is putting her independence drive on hold.
The devolution settlement granted Scotland control of public health issues, and that power has been boosted by new pandemic emergency laws rushed through Westminster.
But critics accuse Ms Sturgeon of exploiting the crisis by refusing to move in step with the UK government.
She complains that Westminster is denying her funding, even though Scotland has received more than £7.5billion extra, on top of access to national schemes like furlough.
A poll puts support for independence at a new record high of 58 per cent, the latest in a series of surveys to show a surge in separatism.
The SNP says it wants to hold a referendum next year if – as polls suggest will happen – it wins a majority at Holyrood elections in May.
Mr Johnson insists he will not allow a new referendum, but there are fears that resisting will merely fuel separatist sentiment.
Alarm has been growing in Westminster at the surge in support for independence, with one recent poll putting it at 58 per cent.
Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Brexit tensions have been credited with the shift.
But the inability of unionists to mobilise and get across their messages about the benefits of keeping the centuries-old alliance has also been identified as a problem.
Many MPs were angry at ‘Little Englanders’ in the PM’s top team, and had hoped that Mr Johnson’s own ‘passion’ for the union would reassert itself with the departure of Mr Cummings and his allies.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said at the weekend that a second vote on splitting the UK ‘must’ happen in 2021 – insisting it had already been delayed from this year.
He said Ms Sturgeon will have grounds to hold a referendum ‘quickly’ if the SNP wins Holyrood elections.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about the cluster centred on No10 that has plunged the PM into quarantine.
Testing tsar Baroness Harding today revealed that she has been ordered to self-isolate by her own coronavirus contact tracing app.
Lady Harding was pictured going into Downing Street on Friday morning, the day after Mr Johnson held a mask-free meeting with Tory MPs including Lee Anderon, who later tested positive.
NHS medical chief Stephen Powis has also revealed he is in quarantine, having been at a press conference in No10 on Thursday night – although he said it was because a member of his household had tested positive.
Lady Harding posted an image of the notification saying ‘you need to self-isolate’, saying she was ‘feeling well’ but remarking ruefully that she had ‘many hours Zoom ahead’.
But the timings will spark speculation over whether there is a link to Boris Johnson’s quarantine.
The notification shows that Lady Harding should be freed from the restrictions at midnight on the morning of November 27, hours after the PM is due to be allowed to leave his Downing Street lockdown.
Mr Johnson went into isolation at his No11 flat after a mask-free meeting last Thursday with Tory MP Lee Anderson, who later tested positive. A series of other Tories are also in quarantine due to the gathering.
Lady Harding was pictured going into Downing Street on Friday morning. No10 sources played down a link, pointing out that Mr Johnson has so far tested negative.
She posted an image of the app ‘ping’ this morning, and wrote: ‘Nothing like personal experience of your own products …. got this overnight. Feeling well. Many hours of Zoom ahead.’
Mr Penrose was ordered to self-isolate by the app last week.
However, Lady Harding did not have to at that point as she had not received an alert.
Under the rules, she only had to quarantine with Mr Penrose if he developed symptoms.
Weston-super-Mare MP Mr Penrose said on Twitter last week: ‘It never rains but it pours…. my NHS app has just gone off, telling me to self-isolate, which I’m doing.
‘No symptoms so far *crosses fingers*’
Asked if he had spoken to his wife about it, he said: ‘We are trying to make sure we are doing it by the book, if I can put it that way.
‘Her NHS app has not gone off, so it’s someone I have been in contact with rather than her.’
In response to a suggestion that it showed the system worked, Mr Penrose said: ‘I suppose it does.’
Data released last week revealed that the NHS Test and Trace system is continuing to struggle to reach much more than 60 per cent of the close contacts of people who test positive for coronavirus.
Government figures published on Thursday showed 60.4 per cent of close contacts in England were reached through Test and Trace in the week ending November 4.
It was the fourth week in a row the figure has been around 60 per cent, having dropped from 77.2 per cent during the week ending September 16.
The data came after Lady Harding said testing and trace on its own is not a ‘silver bullet’ to hold back the spread of coronavirus.
She told a committee of MPs on November 10 that the evidence in the UK and across Europe was that it was just one of a range of interventions needed to tackle the virus.
Mr Johnson opted to take PMQs from self-isolation rather than having his deputy Dominic Raab stand-in for him at the despatch box.
The Government has been under pressure to extend remote participation in parliamentary debates amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
On Sunday, when news of the Prime Minister’s self-isolation broke, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he had been ‘urgently exploring how we can support additional virtual participation’.
But that move was apparently unrelated to Mr Johnson’s circumstances.
Up to 50 MPs can attend the Commons chamber due to social distancing requirements, while Zoom contributions are currently allowed for questions sessions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.
But today’s session was the first time that the Prime Minister has answered questions using the video conferencing software.
Baroness Harding, who heads the NHS Test and Trace service, is self-isolating after receiving an alert from her service
Testing tsar Baroness Harding was pictured going into Downing Street on Friday morning, and is now self-isolating
John Penrose, the MP husband of Test and Trace chief Baroness Harding (pictured together), was recently told to self-isolate by the coronavirus app