Boris Johnson’s government is to seek to patch up its working relationship with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after a bruising period in which they have clashed over the handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told the Financial Times that a review of intergovernmental structures would be accelerated in order to put relations between London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast on a “firmer basis”.
Other steps will include more regular meetings of UK ministers with their counterparts from the devolved administrations, with all sides able to place items on the agenda. This has been a key demand from the Welsh administration in particular.
However the changes — described by one UK government insider as institutional rather than statutory — are likely to stop short of granting significant new powers to the devolved administrations.
“It has been a learning process for everyone,” Mr Gove said of the Covid-19 crisis and relations with the devolved administrations. “It does raise a broader question, not about power grabs and clawbacks but making sure the whole devolution settlement works.”
Mr Gove was speaking before the prime minister announced on Tuesday that his government was imposing the toughest coronavirus restrictions — so-called tier 3 measures — on Greater Manchester after failing to reach agreement with local leaders led by mayor Andy Burnham.
Mr Johnson insisted he had no choice but to impose the restrictions to save lives, although Mr Burnham accused him of “brutal tactics”.
Mr Gove’s pledge to improve the working relationship with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast came after seven months in which the UK government struggled to maintain a united front on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The combination of the pandemic and allegations from both Scotland and Wales that Mr Johnson’s government was mounting a “power grab” as a result of Brexit has created a growing chorus of warnings about the fragility of the UK.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, said that on major issues ranging from lockdown restrictions to test and trace arrangements and quarantine, the UK government had failed to appreciate that on many health matters it only controlled England.
The resulting clashes left him with the impression that the coronavirus crisis had convinced some leading Conservatives that devolution was a “dreadful mistake” that now needed to be rectified.
“There are, undoubtedly, people who come away from this experience thinking that what is necessary is to clip the wings of devolved administrations and to reassert the authority of the UK government,” said Mr Drakeford.
Relations with the Scottish administration have also been strained by the Covid-19 crisis, with the first minister Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly calling for more clarity and co-operation from Westminster.
Humza Yousaf, the Scottish justice secretary, said while working together had been effective in some areas, too often the devolved administrations had not been taken into the heart of decision-making by the UK government.
“I still get frustrated by the fact that I tend to hear about what the UK government’s plans are via the Daily Telegraph the day before we have our joint ministerial meetings,” he added.
Mr Gove contested the idea that the government wanted to “dilute devolution”, but rather sought to improve it through “constant repair and renovation”.
But the government’s critics have said Mr Johnson’s handling of Brexit had sent precisely the opposite message.
The Scottish and Welsh administrations have bitterly opposed Mr Johnson’s legislation which will create the legal foundations of the UK’s internal market as powers wielded in Brussels are repatriated to Westminster next year.
Ms Sturgeon has called the UK government’s internal market bill — which suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords on Tuesday — “an abomination” while the Welsh administration said it was “an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales”.
The government has said that the devolved administrations will experience a “power surge” as a result of the bill, but this has been widely disputed by constitutional experts.
A report about the bill this week from the Centre on Constitutional Change, a think-tank, said the legislation would “significantly undermine the purpose of devolution”, reducing the ability of the devolved administrations to legislate according to local needs and political preferences.
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