Truss might ignore Sturgeon, but she won’t ignore her failures - Brian Monteith

As a politician it is always possible to know when you have pressed your opponent’s panic button. Last week Liz Truss probably surprised herself by doing just that when choosing to answer a question by saying she considered Nicola Sturgeon an attention seeker and the best thing to do “is to ignore her”.

Such was the impact of the verbal right hook one could be forgiven for thinking Truss had just won Gold in the Commonwealth Games women’s boxing without even entering the ring.

Calling an opponent an attention seeker is not new in politics, indeed, Nicola Sturgeon used the term herself on 25 January 2018, calling the then Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie “a pathetic attention seeker”. Adding the damning qualification of “pathetic” was further than Liz Truss was prepared to go, so by the SNP leader’s own standards Truss has still to become as abusive as her.

Sturgeon’s insult did not cause the same level of reaction in Scottish politics or the media simply because it did not stick, it did not resonate as true. Yes, Rennie has been in some bizarre election campaign photocalls, but he has always looked uncomfortable in them, he simply is not a natural craver of attention.

Nicola Sturgeon had her picture taken with climate activists Greta Thunberg (left) and Vanessa Nakate at COP26 last year (Picture: Andy Buchanan/Pool/Getty Images)

By comparison, the words of Truss caused enough synthetic outrage to solve the UK’s energy crisis. And why? Because they had the ring of truth about them. Any balanced and objective person who has taken a close interest in Nicola Sturgeon during her period as First Minister would have to admit she craves publicity of the most outrageous and often tasteless kind to make her face one of the best known in Scotland.

Remember the appalling photo she allowed to be taken of her posing on the railway track outside the gates of Auschwitz where over a million Jews, Poles and Roma were exterminated? Recall the circus of Sturgeon collecting selfies at COP26 last November? What about those matinee idol poses for colour supplements or fashion magazines, her visage on the sides of the campaign helicopter or campaign bus? Before that there were the poses in twin sets aping Margaret Thatcher, or her more recent cosplay attire as a golfer at the Open.

On the most basic level then, Nicola Sturgeon is what used to be called a publicity junkie, but her statements on issues where she has no locus or remit are also used to seek attention – such as her call for Nato not to rule out a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Which was, rightly, ignored (unless you believe in escalating the war in Ukraine onto a multi-national scale).

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In dismissing Nicola Sturgeon as an attention seeker Truss was not demeaning the office of First Minister, she was not disrespecting the Scottish Parliament and she was not insulting the Scottish people or even their democratic choice. Truss was referring to Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, who has a history of stamping her feet and saying, to paraphrase, “I want, I want, I want”. Ms Sturgeon behaves this way not only to try and browbeat other party leaders or governments into submission, she also does it to lead her own supporters up the hill for an imaginary battle that never takes place, before having to lead them back down again, blaming others but never taking responsibility herself.

This modern-day Duchess of York routine is then almost annually repeated, and to work the next time has to get more remonstrative, more noisy and more outrageous to keep her troops marching with all their flags. But the enthusiasm is waning, the numbers are dwindling and many have given up altogether. Truss knows this and has called out the attention seeking for what it is, a political self-indulgence that only deflects attention away from the many, many issues that Nicola Sturgeon would rather not talk about.

So when Truss says she will ignore Sturgeon she is not saying she will ignore the Office of First Minister, or the Scottish Government, no, she is implying quite the reverse. She is saying that the policy articulated by Prime Ministers Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack to ignore calls for a second referendum will continue. That having failed to win the mandate of the electorate the demands amount to no more than attention seeking to save her from her own supporters as she fails to deliver her promise of a meaningful referendum.

Truss will challenge the record of the First Minister on health, on education, on transport, on drug deaths, on alcohol deaths, on economic policy, on industrial failures – and being better at detail than Boris Johnson we might expect she will be able to land blows the like of which Nicola Sturgeon is not used to.

Sturgeon’s most ardent followers do not care about the falling educational attainment, they do not care Sturgeon’s flagship policy of minimum alcohol pricing has delivered higher alcohol-related deaths, they do not care about the state of the NHS – they only care if she will deliver the referendum she promised – and when she doesn’t they will not be best pleased. The policy of ignoring Sturgeon on this issue has worked and now Truss wants to ramp it up.

If Truss becomes prime minister we should expect Jack’s clever policy of delivering more UK help to Scottish local authorities and developing more partnerships for delivering real change to accelerate. We should also expect a keener eye on Scottish Government spending, especially where it acts beyond its powers.

The attention seeking will not stop, it is in this First Minister’s nature, but while the pretendy-ref will be ignored the attention on Sturgeon’s failures is just about to become much more acute. And it is long overdue.

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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