Boris Johnson has come under fire for reportedly telling a virtual meeting of Conservative MPs that devolution had been a “disaster” in Scotland.
Mr Johnson also reportedly described it as predecessor Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”.
The SNP and Labour have both criticised Mr Johnson.
But government sources suggested the prime minister had been making “more of a reference” to the SNP’s running of Scotland than devolution in general.
Mr Johnson was in a Zoom meeting with Tory MPs representing dozens of seats in northern England on Monday when he is said to have made the remarks.
This comes six months before vital elections right across the UK, important particularly in Scotland, just when the SNP has been starting to warm up its campaign, and just when discussions about how the UK government ought to respond are taking place too.
Mr Blair’s Labour government brought in devolution for Scotland in 1999, including the setting up of a parliament in Edinburgh.
A Downing Street source said: “The PM has always supported devolution, but Tony Blair failed to foresee the rise of separatists in Scotland.