THE pandemic has shown Boris Johnson as a prime minister “who speaks for England alone” and has "considerable indifference" to the devolved nations, a scathing new report has found.

Research from the University of Cambridge's Bennett Institute for Public Policy, released today, highlights concerns about the way the UK Government treats devolved administrations, and the sense in Whitehall that maintaining the Union is "someone else's problem".

The "Union at the Crossroads" document comes after three years of research and dozens of interviews with key figures, as well as analysis of the relationships between Downing Street and the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019, said even major political changes such as the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching in Westminster.

Rycroft said the pandemic had deepened the crisis with a breakdown of communications with central government and demonstrated the competence of devolved leaders like Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford.

Rycroft said despite the 2014 referendum, “the cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments.”

He added: “There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”

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Rycroft’s co-author, Professor Michael Kenny, said it was political decision-making, not devolution itself, that caused widening divisions. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by No 10.”

Rycroft said Johnson had a “muscular brand of Unionism ... which is increasingly expressed in combative terms”.

It said this brand of Unionism sees Westminster reluctant to share platforms with first ministers.

The report references Johnson’s remarks to a group of Conservative MPs last year, saying devolution was a “disaster” and one of Tony Blair’s “biggest mistakes”.

It adds: “Whether this yields the right strategic approach for Unionists to adopt in the current, increasingly fraught, political context is an issue that needs to be more widely and publicly aired.

“If the choice that is presented, for instance, to the Scottish public in the coming years is between independence and a new species of unitarist Unionism, there is a very good chance that more political support will grow for the first of these options.

“Furthermore, the ‘neo-Unionism’ that prevails at the top of the current government could well generate a deepening divide with Unionists who are still supporters of ... devolution.”

Rycroft said the instinct to preserve the Union was “not in the bloodstream of the UK state” and that political choices made mainly by Johnson led to a breakdown in partnership working between the four governments during the pandemic.

It goes on: "This co-ordinated pattern first broke down in a significant way as attention turned to how and when to exit the ‘lockdown’ ...

“On 10 May 2020 Johnson set out a phased process for the reopening of schools and different parts of the economy, in light of increasing pressure from some Conservative MPs and parts of the media for a clear ‘exit strategy’.

“Unlike previous announcements, this had not been agreed with the devolved leaders who complained that it had been trailed in the press before they had been consulted.

“There were complaints too that he failed to make clear in his broadcast that most of what he was announcing would apply only in England, giving rise to the suspicion that accepting this awkward reality might diminish the standing of his own office.”

It added: "One factor in the UK Government’s decision to move away from the more collaborative mode for managing this crisis was Johnson’s wariness of the perception that he might be viewed as being on a par with the heads of the devolved governments.”

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Rycroft suggests there is an ingrained tendency to “muddle through” relations with the union with no defined strategy. Recurring tropes include an over-reliance on informal backchannels while the main intergovernmental committees have at times been “largely tokenistic”, with devolution issues often ranked as a low priority by some of Whitehall’s main departments.

“The cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments – even in the wake of Scotland’s referendum,” said Rycroft, a senior visiting fellow at the Bennett Institute. “There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”

Professor Michael Kenny, report co-author and director of the Bennett Institute, said the Tory Government's approach was “fundamentally unstrategic”.

He said: “Existential threats to the Union, crystallised during the Scottish referendum, and exacerbated by Brexit and coronavirus, keep exposing the inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK governments.

“Trying to undercut nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers is no longer sustainable, and betrays the fundamentally un-strategic mindset which prevails in Westminster and Whitehall.”

“Without a major overhaul of the way in which central government approaches its relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this 300-year-old Union is at serious risk.”

Researchers say policymaking in No 10 should be “devo-proofed”, with the implications of any policies on devolved governments “considered and communicated” at an early stage.

They argue that a solid understanding of devolution and the governance of the whole of the UK should be a prerequisite for promotion into senior civil service roles.

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The report states there is a “growing need for a more open and informed debate, more strategic thinking, and a more balanced, flexible and functional system of multi-layered governance”, with all four governments consulted and engaged with.

It adds: “Without this, it is almost inevitable that relationships between the governments of the UK’s component parts will continue to deteriorate, adding further to the already significant strains on the Union, and ultimately to the risk of its break-up.”

Rycroft added: “There is no good justification for devolved ministers hearing about policies that will have significant knock-on effects for their own territories at the last minute.

“Yet it is still a regular occurrence.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen.

"Strengthening the United Kingdom is at the heart of everything we do and we are working alongside the devolved administrations to establish new ways of regular, meaningful and effective cooperation so that we continue to deliver for people right across the United Kingdom.”

The report comes just months after the collapse of No 10's Union Unit, which saw the departure of two of its leaders in the space of two weeks.

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