Tory leadership: Liz Truss needs to 'radically' improve Scotland understanding and tone down Nicola Sturgeon attacks, Tory MSPs warn

Liz Truss need to “radically” improve her understanding of Scotland and tone down her attacks on Nicola Sturgeon as soon as she becomes Prime Minister to avoid putting the Union at risk, Conservatives MSPs have warned.

They told The Scotsman there were fears within the party’s ranks north of the border the “muscular Unionism” approach she has taken during the leadership campaign would continue once, as is widely expected, she moves into Downing Street.

They warned this would be a major tactical error that could not only cost the Tories’ seats at the next general election, but also increase the chances of Scotland voting to leave the UK in any future independence referendum campaign.MSPs issued the warning before it was reported that Ms Truss's team is considering a possible change to the law to make it more difficult for the pro-independence side to win any referendum, by insisting that more than half the electorate of Scotland would have to back Yes rather than just a simple majority of those who cast votes.The plan was yesterday described as "gerrymandering" by the First Minister and is likely to fuel further concerns among Scottish Tories that Ms Truss's stance on the Union will be even more hard line than the one taken by Boris Johnson.

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In a now-notorious incident during a hustings in Exeter last month, Ms Truss described Ms Sturgeon as an “attention seeker” who was best ignored, to rapturous applause from the audience of Tory members.

Foreign secretary and a contender to become the country's next Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party Liz Truss (left) speaking during an interview with BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg (right) on the TV set, in London. Picture: Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP via Getty Images
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Deputy First Minister John Swinney said most voters would be “absolutely horrified” by the remarks, with Ms Sturgeon later firing back by suggesting Ms Truss was the attention seeker as she had once told her she was desperate to appear in Vogue.

Besides her attack on the First Minister, Ms Truss’s general approach to Scotland has been to rule out granting a second independence referendum and to describe herself as a “child of the Union” who went to primary school in Paisley and secondary school in Leeds.

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Beyond this – and a couple of policy announcements made during her sole campaign stop north of the border – Ms Truss has not dwelled much on Scotland nor given many clues on how she would practically deal with the threat of a weakening Union.

As one worried Tory MSP put it: “We need to see a radically better understanding of the intricate nature of Scottish politics, and for her to start talking to the whole country instead of those who've already made up their mind on the Union.

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“She hasn't made a particularly good start on that front. Even Scottish Conservatives who are backing Liz Truss are concerned about this.”

Another said they were worried about the “insensitivity” shown by Ms Truss through her comments about Ms Sturgeon and urged her to put in place a team of advisers who could guide her policy on Scotland.

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“My great hope is that all the rhetoric of the leadership campaign is toned down, and rather like a Republican primary, the candidates – having swung to the right to secure the membership – then start talking to the electorate as a whole more moderate terms,” the MSP said.

They also pointed out Mr Johnson quickly U-turned on his aggressive approach to Scotland when he was told it would play badly north of the border.

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“Comments like the one she made in the hustings, even if you don't support independence or the nationalists, it just grates – the tone is wrong,” they added.

“I hope the muscular Unionism does give way to something quieter. People say she's a bit of a maverick, she shoots from the hip a bit, and all it takes is one off-guard comment during PMQs to [SNP Westminster leader] Ian Blackford.”

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Continuing to appease the Tory base with a hard-line stance on Scotland could also be a problem for Ms Truss in any future indyref2 campaign, according to polling expert Mark Diffley, whose firm conducted research on both Tory leadership candidates.

“Depending on how you measure it, there are 15 or 20 per cent of voters in Scotland who haven't quite made their mind up yet on independence,” he said. “They are, I would argue, more likely to be swayed by a consensual approach.

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“These are not people who want an aggressive relationship between Edinburgh and London. They want things to be as consensual as possible. So there is a risk to her, I think, in an overly muscular approach.”

He said while “aggressive rhetoric” against Ms Sturgeon might “go down great” with those already firmly in the No camp, the result of the next referendum would rest on which campaign could most effectively reach out into this pool of undecided voters.

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Ms Truss’s stance on Scotland so far – and the coronation of yet another Tory Prime Minister that voters north of the border have not voted for since 1955 – might appear on the surface to be a boon for the SNP and supporters of independence.

But the constitutional deadlock that has defined Scottish politics since the Brexit vote shows no real sign of shifting, even with the impending Supreme Court case on whether Holyrood has the power to hold its own vote.

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Alex Salmond, the former first minister, has described this as a “Hail Mary” option for the Scottish Government and many believe it has little chance of success.

One veteran independence campaigner and parliamentarian pointed out the SNP have been saying for years that indyref2 is inevitable, but have so far been proved wrong.

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“I think the questions for the Sturgeon, Blackford-type people are – what are you going to do?” they said. “[SNP MP] Pete Wishart said that Johnson was bound to blink. Well he hasn’t, and now we’ve got a different one.

“Even if they put it to a ‘plebiscite election’, what if they do win, and what if Truss says no? They haven't got a strategy.”

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