THE Union remains an "incredible partnership" that has “more than shown its worth” during the coronavirus crisis, Boris Johnson has claimed, in a major speech about investing in economic recovery. 

The Prime Minister said it was the “might of the United Kingdom Treasury” which had saved jobs and businesses through the furlough scheme supporting more than 9million employees.

He also announced a study of “cross-sea links” around the four nations, a reference to his much-derided idea for a “Boris bridge” or tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It also emerged that Mr Johnson had created a new Cabinet group to draw up policies to strengthen then Union.

The Union Policy Implementation committee will "support the delivery of the Government's priorities in relation to the Union of the United Kingdom".

Chaired by cabinet office minister Michael Gove, its other members are the Chancellor and the secretaries of state for Scottish, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

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Speaking in Dudley in the West Midlands as Leicester became the first UK city to go back into lockdown because of a Covid surge, Mr Johnson said the country could not remain a prisoner of the crisis. 

He said: “I think it is absolutely vital for us to set out the plan ahead.

"If the Covid crisis has taught us one thing, it is that this country must be ready... to move with speed we have not had in generations".

He likened the UK Government’s plan to accelerate £5billion of building projects to the New Deal that President Roosevelte used to lift America out of the Great Depressions in the early 1930s. 

He said: “We will build and rebuild those vital connections to every part of the UK, because now is the moment to strengthen that incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“I know that sometimes people have played up the legitimate variations in response between the devolved administrations.

“But when you look att the whole effort, you can see the absolutely vital role of that Union and that partnership.

“It is our fantastic UK armed services that have played such a crucial role in this crisis - running the test centres, building the hospitals, transporting people from the Shetlands to the right Covid wards.

“It was the might of the United Kingdom Treasury that set up that furlough scheme in all corners of the country - sent massive and immediate extra funding to all four parts of the UK.

“So I think the Union has more than showed its worth.”

Referring obliquely to the Boris Bridge plan that has so far gone nowhere, he said: “And a prosperous and United Kingdom must also be a connected Kingdom. 

“And that’s why we’re now accelerating projects from the south west to the north east, from Wales to Scotland, to Northern Ireland.

“And to drive economic growth in all parts of the country I can say that we will carry out a study of all future, road, rail, air and cross-sea links between all out four parts of the UK.”

Answering questions from the media, Mr Johnson refused to say if he would stick to his manifesto guarantee not to raise National Insurance, Income Tax or VAT to help pay for the recovery.

The PM said he wanted the tax burden to remain "reasonable" and that Chancellor Rishi Sunak would say more next week.

Asked at the daily briefing about Mr Johnson’s comments, Nicola Sturgeon said: "All politicians, all leaders, have to choose their own language, they have to choose how they conduct themselves at all times, but particularly during a time of national crisis.

"Boris Johnson and I are very different kinds of people, very different personalities. I would, on a whole range of ways, choose not to emulate him and how he speaks and how he behaves, and I'm sure he would choose to emulate me in many respects.

"Right now my focus is on tackling this virus and doing my duty to the people of Scotland, and doing that to the best of my ability."

However she also said voters would take into account the relative performances of the Scottish and UK Governments during the Covid crisis when making up their minds about the constitution.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “The Prime Minister made clear today how incredibly important our strong United Kingdom is.

“The connections between the different parts of the UK are vital to that success. The Prime Minister’s plan to improve transport links and infrastructure right across the country shows the UK Government’s unwavering commitment to strengthening the Union and boosting further the UK’s internal market.

“I look forward to working with the devolved administration on key infrastructure improvements across Scotland, building on our successful joint work on city and region growth deals.”

Responding to the creation of the Cabinet committee on the Union, Pamela Nash, chief executive of the anti-independnce Scotland in Union group, said: "This is a positive step from the UK Government.

“It’s clear that the SNP is still playing constitutional games despite the coronavirus crisis, so the UK Government needs to ensure the UK works for all of its citizens.

“With a deep recession ahead of us, the job of government is to bring people together across the United Kingdom.”

The SNP called the PM's speech a damp squib and a "failure of ambition" that ignored Scotland's needs.

Westminster leader Ian Blackford contrasted the £5bn headline figure with the £80bn of investment which Ms Sturgeon this week said was needed to achieve a recovery.

Mr Blackford said: "The Tories are putting Scotland's recovery at risk. Yet again, Boris Johnson has fallen woefully short on his promises with this failure of ambition that completely ignores Scotland's needs.

"This recycled money falls far short of the huge investment that the UK requires to secure a strong recovery and it pales in comparison to the bold action being taken in other countries.

“The pandemic has caused an unprecedented economic crisis – and that must be met with an unprecedented response, in line with that announced by other nations like Germany. 

"The Prime Minister needs to go back to the drawing board and return with another relaunch speech to announce an emergency budget, a meaningful package of at least £80billion in investment, and to devolve the financial powers that the Scottish Parliament needs to secure a strong recovery for Scotland.

"These powers are essential. Without them Scotland will be left tackling this crisis with one hand tied behind its back.

"Scotland can make different choices to strengthen our economy and build a fairer society - but only if we have the powers and funds needed for an investment-led recovery.

"With the normal powers of an independent country, Scotland would be able to make the most of historically low interest rates to boost the economy - just as other countries are doing.

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"The Tory government must match the ambition of Nicola Sturgeon's proposals for at least £80billion UK-wide in investment, a proper jobs guarantee for young people, and the devolution of powers - or Westminster will be failing Scotland again at this critical time."   

The Scottish Greens called Mr Johnson's plans a "reckless and dangerous roll back on environmental protections".

Co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “This is the bleakest possible vision of a recovery from coronavirus, dressed up in the language of a green new deal.

“His plan to ‘build, build, build’ includes a massive road building programme and a deeply alarming deregulation of the housing market.

"Both of these could cause enormous environmental damage, as well as increasing emissions. What’s more, he can’t even say how many jobs would be created.

“This is yet more rhetoric on a green recovery without the action or urgency required. This is no new deal. Boris Johnson even hailed the free market financiers who have caused the most damage. It’s very much the old deal on stilts.

“We’ve yet to see what impact these plans will have on Scotland’s finances, but it’s clear we must go our own way and reject this catastrophic approach.”

Dr Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, added: "We must not let this crisis go to waste. Plans to rebuild our economy must be backed with both intent, collaboration and investment of a scale not seen since the last century.

“The Prime Minister set out a compelling case for investing in infrastructure and we urge both the Scottish & UK Government to work together to put shovel-ready projects on the table and deliver investment to ensure the economy is supported in the immediate, medium and long term.

“Boosting consumer confidence by announcing VAT cuts, providing further job security by extending the furlough scheme for the hardest-hit sectors and providing guaranteed opportunities for our young people are just some of the immediate steps both Governments should collaborate on and deliver for business.

"The Scottish Government must ensure all consequential funding is allocated towards rehabilitating the economy and creating jobs.”