Truss’s attacks on Sturgeon likely to dominate Scottish hustings | Conservative leadership
Senior Scottish Conservatives fear Liz Truss’s “red meat” attacks on Nicola Sturgeon as an attention-seeker will alienate moderate voters, as the leadership hopeful prepares to face Rishi Sunak in Perth.
The lengthy contest to succeed Boris Johnson as the UK Conservative leader and next prime minister enters its final phase on Tuesday evening with the only party hustings in Scotland; the Tories chose Perth, a city once seen as a Tory stronghold.
Both candidates will be challenged on the escalating cost of living crisis and soaring energy bills, and the absence of urgent action from the UK government. But a third question is likely to dominate this event: whether Truss was right earlier in the campaign to dismiss Scotland’s first minister by saying she should be “ignored”.
Senior figures in both camps agree it was a misstep. It suggested Truss, the clear favourite to win, had adopted a “muscular unionism” approach to Sturgeon’s nationalist government. It undermined a subtler strategy devised by Michael Gove to promote the union quietly, by putting UK government money into roads, community projects and infrastructure, sidestepping the devolved Scottish government by working directly with councils.
A Sunak ally said Truss’s remarks, and her disastrous suggestion that public sector pay rates could be cut in northern regions, alienated Tory councillors in his constituency, who had switched support from Truss to the former chancellor.
More seriously, he said, her remarks in Exeter showed a “deep misunderstanding” of the need to persuade moderate unionists and uncommitted yes voters to support the union in a future referendum.
“She’s probably going to win this [so] why did she pander to that extreme position when it’s going to create further difficulties for her down the line? Just say: ‘I need to be a stateswoman’ instead of throwing red meat to the ultras,” he said.
Truss supporters in Scotland acknowledge they have advised her to adopt a less belligerent tone against Sturgeon: they insist Truss will follow Gove’s softly-softly strategy. “To me it was just a throwaway line at a hustings for a party audience,” said one ally. “I don’t believe we will see a major shift in approach to Scotland. The emphasis will be on raising the profile of the UK government and on direct investment, which I think is very clever politics.”
And like Theresa May and Boris Johnson, both Sunak and Truss have refused to agree to Sturgeon’s request for Westminster to authorise a fresh independence referendum. “On that big ticket issue, there isn’t going to be any change,” said one Truss ally.
Sunak and Truss will be bidding for the votes of more than 10,000 Scottish Tory party members on Tuesday evening. Far more controlled now in their policy pitches after a series of U-turns, both candidates made carefully choreographed visits to the north-east of Scotland – now the Tories’ Scottish power base. The Tories are walking a tight-rope on energy policy here; talk of a windfall tax on energy companies plays badly around Aberdeen, which has grown rich on North Sea oil.
Despite the steady leaching away of support elsewhere in Scotland during Johnson’s leadership – losing seven of their 13 Westminster seats in the 2019 general election, the Tories held on in much of the north-east, retaining many more Holyrood seats in the region in 2021.
Sunak visited Inverurie and was reportedly due to have an off-camera visit to meet fishers; Truss went to “tap a barrel” at a whisky distillery in Elgin, before holding a private party event in Aberdeen.
Both candidates announced plans to strengthen parliamentary accountability over the Scottish government. Sunak said Scotland’s permanent secretary should be required to appear before MPs in London; Truss said MSPs would be given parliamentary privilege similar to the legal immunity for MPs, to allow them to more robustly challenge Scottish ministers.
The whisky visit has symbolic resonance for Truss. Her gaffe in Exeter aside, her supporters argue she has a proven track-record of investing in Scotland: at the Department for International Trade and then the Foreign Office Truss increased the civil service presence in Scotland, and helped broker a cut in US import tariffs on Scotch whisky.
John Lamont MP, the coordinator of Sunak’s Scottish campaign, said the former chancellor’s appeal went far wider than civil servants and distillers. He was “quick-footed” on delivering the furlough and business support during the pandemic; that helped everyone. “With the cost of living crisis, he gets and understands what’s required,” Lamont said.
David Mundell MP, the former Scottish secretary who will introduce Truss at the Perth hustings, said: “I know her commitment to the union: she spent part of her childhood here in Scotland and understands the issues within Scotland and its place in the UK. She’s not just an enthusiastic unionist, I think she’s a bold one.”
Truss will have an immediate advantage over her predecessor, Mundell adds. “What she brings to things is she’s not Boris Johnson. We’re not going to have a double referendum on Boris Johnson and on independence. She’ll be less divisive and offputting for middle-ground Scottish voters,” he said.