Rishi has a lot on his plate — but he can’t ignore SNP’s toxic threat
THE Tory leadership psychodrama has been an exhausting business, but at least Rishi Sunak offers some hope of steadying the ship.
His first priority will be keeping the party together and pulling the government back from the brink after a period of extraordinary turmoil.
And there’s no doubt his overriding priority will be the economy — and mopping up the mess after the failed experiment of Trussonomics.
But he mustn’t forget another mission which in the longer term is just as imperative — bolstering the Union, and shoring up its defences against toxic separatism.
Many Scots would have sympathised with Liz Truss when she dismissed Nicola Sturgeon as an ‘attention seeker’, and indeed during her admittedly short-lived tenure Miss Truss didn’t even speak to her.
But that was a strategic error — one of many — which needlessly handed ammunition to the SNP, allowing it to demonise the UK Government yet again as distant and uncaring.
Miss Truss talked a good game on the importance of keeping the Union together, but in her brief reign arguably did more to damage than strengthen it.
We know what Mr Sunak plans to do because he told us during that gruelling leadership campaign in the summer, when he said Miss Truss was being ‘dangerously complacent’ about the SNP.
He said he wanted to reassemble the group of Downing Street advisers known as the ‘Union unit’, and pledged that his government would ‘do anything and everything to protect, sustain and strengthen’ the United Kingdom.
And he said that if he won he would send more of his ministers to Scotland to appear at Holyrood committees, and to maintain a physical presence that reminded people of the UK Government’s positive impact north of the Border.
Boris Johnson was at times hesitant to visit Scotland and had every right to be, given that the Scottish Tories were publicly critical of him and believed him to be an electoral liability.
But his bogeyman status was over-played — the SNP’s great hope that he would push up support for independence to dizzying new levels didn’t work out as planned.
Of course, it would be an understatement to say that he was divisive, and Mr Sunak now has a chance to make a fresh start — he’s far more likely to get a warmer reception in Scotland than Mr Johnson.
And when he does come he should call in at Bute House — because giving Miss Sturgeon a wide berth is exactly what she wants.
More importantly, most Scots are sick of the antagonism, stoked by the SNP, between the Scottish and UK Governments, and long for a more constructive relationship.
Mr Sunak should lead by example to show he shares their objective — but that goal can’t be achieved by the kind of playground tactics advocated by Miss Truss.
That’s not to say he should give any ground on a second independence referendum — the SNP Government has no mandate to demand it, having failed to win a majority of votes at the Holyrood election last year.
Mr Sunak could send a strong signal that the task of preserving and fortifying the UK is important to his administration by appointing Michael Gove as Minister for the Union.
It’s bad news for government that he is now consigned to the back benches — and a waste of his considerable talents as an organiser and strategist.
It would make sense to bring him into the fold for the sake of unity, but Mr Gove also understands the SNP’s modus operandi.
Alongside Scottish Secretary Alister Jack Mr Gove would prove a formidable operator, as he has in his previous Cabinet roles.
The danger is that Mr Sunak loses focus on the Union as he tackles the chaos he has inherited from his predecessor, and the economy must be at the top of his agenda.
In these circumstances, able lieutenants such as Mr Gove, working closely with Mr Jack, would be crucial — helping to avoid missteps that play into the SNP’s hands.
Mr Sunak claims credit for the idea of freeports — special economic zones offering tax breaks and lower tariffs for businesses — two of which are planned for Scotland.
SNP ministers eventually backed down on ridiculous demands from their anti-capitalist Green partners to call the new sites ‘greenports’.
But the resulting loss of investment as the SNP Scottish Government dithered and virtue-signalled could be as a high as £3billion.
Given that economic growth in Scotland has been roughly half the UK level since 2014, there is further scope for more innovative intervention.
Projects of this kind also demonstrate to voters in Scotland that the UK Government is coming up with and implementing big ideas — and that the SNP spends most of its time trying to stymie them.
This cooperative approach doesn’t preclude holding the SNP to account for its many failures — frankly, opposition MSPs at Holyrood aren’t always up to the job, and could do with the back-up.
Mr Sunak also spoke during the leadership campaign about the possibility of a review of the relationship between the Scottish Tories and Central Office.
That could result, in theory, in more latitude and autonomy for the Scottish party at a time when it’s on the verge of electoral disaster, according to the polls.
A full-scale debate about a complete severing of ties, with the Scottish Tories effectively run as a separate entity — an idea that’s been raised in the past — is probably a distraction.
Planning for a General Election, which could happen sooner than the Tories would like, is more important than organisational reform, and should be immediately ratcheted up a gear.
But it’s reassuring that Mr Sunak is prepared to countenance change: after all, the Tories in Scotland are the only party that can be trusted to stand firm against the SNP’s unrelenting agitation on the constitution.
Labour under Anas Sarwar is more competent than it was, but it has flip-flopped on the Union for years.
Most of all, Mr Sunak shouldn’t be afraid to drive home the message that the UK enabled the costly but necessary furlough scheme during the pandemic, and mass vaccination — which finally allowed life to get back to normal earlier this year.
These are concrete achievements while Miss Sturgeon plays at fantasy economics, even if her independence dream has been revealed as something closer to a dystopian nightmare — complete with border checkpoints, a towering deficit, and Latin American-style sterlingisation.
As a champion of the Union, the new Prime Minister must take the fight to the SNP, and expose the Nationalist charade for what it is — flimsy hypotheses and delusion, backed up by a never-ending appetite for chaos and division.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 25, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant