Rishi Sunak leadership: Second-choice PM to face significant Scottish struggles

The relationship between the new inhabitant of Number 10 and Scotland will be central to the Conservative recovery north of the border, but is it a doomed effort with demands for a general election growing?

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Among those making the demands was, unsurprisingly, the First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon, taking to Twitter to congratulate Rishi Sunak on his second attempt success at becoming Prime Minister, repeated the call she had made just hours earlier that whoever took the reins of No.10 should “call an early general election”. Alongside this, the SNP leader also said she would do her best to foster a “constructive working relationship with him in the interests of those we serve”.

The warm words are almost identical to those she sent to Liz Truss just seven weeks ago on September 5 when Ms Sturgeon said she would “seek to build a good working relationship” with the now outgoing prime minister. That relationship, however, never had the chance to develop, with the defenestrated Tory leader failing to ring or meet Scotland’s most senior politician during her 44-day tenure. Backed by Michael Gove, one of the few senior Tories to take an active interest in the Union, Mr Sunak is less likely to take the Truss approach of putting fingers in the collective ears of government and simply choosing to ignore devolved leaders.

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The approach to the SNP was one of the dividing lines during the summer’s leadership campaign, with Ms Truss claiming she would “ignore” the First Minister, calling her an “attention seeker”. Mr Sunak, by comparison, warned of complacency in treating Ms Sturgeon in such a way. Instead, he warned her party poses an “existential threat to our cherished Union” and that he would “take her on and beat her”. On independence, Mr Sunak said he believed it was a “quite frankly barmy” idea and shut down the possibility of a referendum in October 2023, as is the plan of the SNP.

In that sense, it will be more of the same for the SNP and the Scottish Government in terms of the constitutional question. Dealing with a ‘just say no’ attitude that has stalled the debate for so long will frustrate some within the independence movement, but will be the approach taken by Mr Sunak without hesitation. His approach to devolution, however, will be more telling. During the leadership contest he pledged sending UK ministers to Scotland more often, re-establishing the ‘Union unit’, and seeing the Permanent Secretary answer questions in Westminster on devolved competencies. More scrutiny of Holyrood in Westminster may chime well with the Tory hardcore, but whether it changes opinions enough on the SNP’s own performance among Scots to see votes head towards pro-Union parties is questionable.

It is also possible none of these planned changes to devolution and engagement go ahead. Some within Mr Sunak’s Cabinet will likely argue there are more important things to tackle than taking on the SNP. After all, the future of the Union failed to get even a cursory mention in the new Prime Minister’s first speech to the nation. Nicola Sturgeon will be confident she can continue her record of outlasting Conservative prime ministers.

Writing for The Scotsman, Andrew Bowie, MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, labels Mr Sunak as the “steady hand needed on the tiller” of the UK economy and someone who will lead a government with “Scotland at the heart of its decisions”. The Scottish Tory MP has been a key figure in backing the Sunak campaign from the moment Boris Johnson resigned in July and may be rewarded for that loyalty come the ministerial reshuffle. Time will tell whether Alister Jack, a loyal lieutenant of Boris Johnson, is trusted with keeping the job of Scotland Secretary.

Such a role would be a relatively easy one to leave to Mr Jack, maintaining both stability and providing an olive branch to the Johnsonite side of the party, and Mr Sunak’s overall approach to the Union is unlikely to be markedly different to that of Mr Johnson or cause any internal ructions. In a statement, Mr Jack urged the party to “unite and focus on delivering for everyone in our country”.

Rishi Sunak during a hustings event in Perth, Scotland, as part of the campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister which he lost.Rishi Sunak during a hustings event in Perth, Scotland, as part of the campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister which he lost.
Rishi Sunak during a hustings event in Perth, Scotland, as part of the campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister which he lost.

On a practical level, however, a Sunak premiership is almost guaranteed to lead to cuts to the Holyrood budget, which services can barely support. It is absolutely fair of opposition politicians in Scotland to say to John Swinney as interim finance secretary the choices he is making with the Scottish Government’s budget must be owned by the SNP/Green coalition. But it is also fair for this next round of cuts to be squarely blamed on the actions of the Conservative Party in Westminster. Without Ms Truss’s mini-budget, the scale of the impending cuts would not be required. Jeremy Hunt’s screeching U-turn on tax cuts has, in turn, limited any Barnett consequential bonuses from the mini-budget.

This will put Douglas Ross, as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood, under significant pressure over coming months. How does he credibly respond to the emergency budget review, set to be outlined later this week by Mr Swinney, when a leader he publicly backed has caused such financial hardship? More difficult will be the Scottish budget proper, set to be outlined on December 15. Cuts to services are almost guaranteed due to the fiscal position of the UK as a whole, with probable tax rises in the form of threshold freezes. How Mr Ross finds a coherent and credible tax position and the political space to criticise cuts following the weeks of crisis in Westminster is a potentially unanswerable question.

Despite this, the party’s MSPs will be breathing a huge sigh of relief at the fact it is Mr Sunak and not Mr Johnson who will lead the party.

All episodes of the brand new limited series podcast, How to be an independent country: Scotland’s Choices, are out now.

It is available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.



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