Liz Truss still has to convince she is a serious leader for serious times - John McLellan

“Your Majesty is like a stream of bat's piss,” Victorian painter John Whistler told the Prince of Wales in an encounter between the finest minds of the era and the future King Edward VII, but blamed George Bernard Shaw for the apparent insult.

“I merely meant, Your Majesty,” the playwright nervously explained, “that you shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark”.

Ok, so Whistler was actually John Cleese with Michael Palin as Shaw in the 1972 Monty Python sketch, illustrating how to quickly explain away an otherwise obvious slight. The sketch sprung to mind when Nationalist indignation erupted over Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss’s crowd-pleasing jibe at the Exeter hustings that Nicola Sturgeon should just be ignored. What she merely meant was “she would have no truck with Sturgeon’s incessant and increasingly tiresome demands for another independence referendum,” explained Truss backer Murdo Fraser MSP in The Scotsman this week.

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And Mr Fraser is spot on given the majority of Scots oppose a referendum now and the First Minister has no legal means to hold one, with the SNP’s campaign to stage an unwanted vote an unnecessary and damaging distraction. With inflation set to hit 13 per cent, interest rates going up half a per cent and soaring energy bills about to wipe out chunks of even above-average incomes, the sole political focus should be on how we get through this, not an argument on constitutional upheaval which, according to the SNP’s own Growth Commission report written in times of plenty, would make things even worse for years.

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With the blanket coverage her remarks received here, few Scottish voters will be unaware of what she said. It may be the case that, as Oscar Wilde/Graham Chapman says at the start of that Python sketch, there is nothing worse than being talked about than not being talked about, but it took valuable time and effort to explain what she really meant. I don’t believe for a second Miss Truss genuinely thinks Ms Sturgeon can be ignored in Scotland any more than Sir Keir Starmer is irrelevant, even though he struggles to control shadow ministers or the unions, but as Frank Carson might have said, it’s the way she told it.

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Scottish Conservatives might like nothing more than to waive away the SNP’s leader, whoever it may be, but the lesson of the devolution era is that Unionists can never again ignore the constant threat posed by Scottish nationalism, as Labour thought it could once the Scottish Parliament was established, and to a lesser extent the Conservatives did by negotiating with the SNP administration of 2007-11 so it could pass its budgets and survive.

Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss on the campaign trail this week. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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Accuracy of language matters, but on Wednesday in Cardiff Ms Truss did it again, saying the Scottish Government was spending its “entire resources” on independence, which needed further explanation that she meant independence lies at the heart of every SNP policy. Her instincts are right but the articulation astray because the stark evidence is nothing matters more to the SNP than independence, and the starting point with every policy is divergence from the UK, no matter the outcome.

The determination to split from the UK Census ─ and the subsequent botched Scottish version ─ has wrecked essential forecasting for public service delivery. Meanwhile, tinkering with income tax rates to justify a fuzzy soundbite costs the Scottish Government over £400m a year and the refusal to cooperate with Sir Peter Hendy’s connectivity review threatens transport infrastructure investment. But most appalling of all is the Scottish Government’s failure to deal with Scotland’s disgraceful record of drug deaths, 3.7 per cent higher here than the rest of the country, other than to complain about the refusal of the UK Government to legalise drug consumption rooms. That Annemarie Ward, the chief executive of Faces and Voices of Recovery UK ─ an independence supporter and SNP member to boot ─ feels “abused” by civil servants, and such a matter of life and death is an excuse “to fuel a proxy debate on independence” says all anyone needs to know about Scottish Government priorities.

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Even in an energy crisis, the nationalist grievance machine is one piece of Scottish infrastructure which never needs refuelling, so precision is important. In fact, far from ignoring Ms Sturgeon, Team Truss is preparing to tackle the SNP head-on, with Sir Ian Duncan-Smith this week floating a new Westminster scrutiny system for the devolved nations. It’s unlikely SNP MPs would co-operate with any such process, but senior civil servants employed by the UK Government would not have a choice. A regular facts-based grilling of officials about policy implementation and outcomes would be a world away from the devolve-and-forget approach of recent years, in which the forgetting has included some senior Scottish officials about who pays their wages. Through the Centre for Social Justice, which Sir Iain chairs, the extreme social failures in deprived Scottish Communities are also set to go under the spotlight. So too is the Scotland Office, which is set to be empowered to ramp up direct intervention in Scotland through the Levelling Up process, and the Acorn carbon capture project in Peterhead could yet be accelerated.

Internally, there have been pleas for “blue-on-blue” criticism to stop, but for the rest of this ridiculously long campaign it is incumbent on each camp to limit the reasons to criticise.

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After the madcap Johnson years, we don’t need glib remarks or policy making on the hoof which result in embarrassing U-turns. With an economic apocalypse looming, we need attention to detail, targeted relief for the vulnerable and a credible long-term recovery plan. Although determined to compete until the end, Rishi Sunak’s race is almost run and if Miss Truss is the serious leader serious times demand, she has the next month to convince the country, not just the lucky few like me who have a vote.