Boris Johnson is notorious for his belief in ‘cakeism’ – the belief that it is possible to govern without making trade-offs.
This laissez-faire attitude towards consistency left the Prime Minister painfully exposed over comments he made about devolution last week. Just hours after Johnson told Conservative MPs devolution had been a “disaster”, Downing Street was trying to explain that what he meant to say was that it was “great”. Less having one’s cake than choking on it.
Johnson’s true feelings about devolution are hard to pin down. As the Mayor of London, he took control of the Metropolitan Police, while angling for the devolution of education and taxation powers. As PM, Johnson treats the UK’s devolved governments as an afterthought – both on Brexit and COVID-19.
The only discernible pattern in these contradictory approaches is that Johnson says whatever he believes to be most politically expedient at a given time. This certainly explains his characterisation of devolution as a “disaster” – which reflects the frustration shared by many Conservative politicians and activists that their party cannot win power in Edinburgh or Cardiff Bay.
However, arguing that devolution has supposedly failed because the governing party is the “wrong” ideological hue is not only patronising to Scottish and Welsh voters – but also emblematic of the Johnson Government’s cavalier attitude towards institutions. Unless they do the Conservative Party’s bidding, they are fit for junking.
Such a stance fails to acknowledge how voters across the UK like to keep their politicians close. According to recent polling from YouGov, 56% of Welsh voters say they trust the Welsh Government’s decision-making on COVID. The equivalent figure for the UK Government is half that (28%).
It is surprising that Brexiteer unionists – who spent much of the 2016 EU referendum extolling the need for strong lines of accountability between voters and their representatives – cannot see the cognitive dissonance.
The narrow Johnsonian conceptualisation of devolution only serves to further the powers of one nation: England. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the controversial Internal Market Bill, which gives England the ability to determine the standards of goods and services entering markets in the rest of the UK.
Even so, it should be noted that this iteration of English nationalism has no time for the preferences of England’s regions, ether. Although the Government promised to devolve more powers away from Whitehall as part of its “levelling up” agenda, it spent the autumn fighting with Northern England’s metro mayors.
Johnson and his Government claim this muscular approach ends two decades of devolutionary drift which has supposedly undermined the fabric of the union. Their relish for confrontation with devolved nations and regions is a choice.
But they deserve no sympathy when they lament the consequences of that choice. On devolution, it seems the Prime Minister’s cake is on the brink of burning.