With the Union in peril, Scottish Tories hedge their bets

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LONDON — When it comes to courting swing voters in Scotland, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak both start from a significant advantage: Neither of them are Boris Johnson. 

The outgoing prime minister has long suffered from a popularity deficit in Scotland, even when he enjoyed relatively high national approval ratings in the first phase of the COVID pandemic, and through the subsequent vaccine rollout.

Conservative activists in Scotland hope his successor can now turn the page on this uneasy relationship and start rebuilding the party’s fortunes after the Tories slipped into the third spot behind the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Labour in May’s local elections.

As the two candidates head to the riverside city of Perth on Tuesday for the first — and only — leadership hustings to be held in Scotland, neither has yet emerged as a clear favorite north of the border.

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Sunak perhaps has the edge among Westminster politicians. Of the six Scottish Conservative MPs, two — Andrew Bowie and John Lamont, who used to be Truss’ parliamentary aide — are backing Sunak.

Significantly, the others have not yet declared — although Ruth Davidson, the influential former Scottish Tory leader, has also come out for Sunak. 

Truss, on the other hand, received a boost when nine Conservative members of the Scottish parliament endorsed her in an open letter at the start of the month. 

Truss can point to a Scottish connection — she spent part of her childhood in Paisley — while Sunak was one of the Johnson Cabinet’s more visible presences in Scotland, making numerous visits as chancellor. 

The lack of a clear frontrunner among Scotland’s Tories partly reflects lessons learned from the 2019 leadership race, when the majority of Scottish Tory MPs came out strongly for Jeremy Hunt, who was ultimately trounced by Johnson. The anti-Johnson feeling among the Scottish Tory faithful was so strong that allies of Davidson were said then to have run an unsuccessful and ultimately humiliating whispering campaign — nicknamed Operation Arse — to keep him out of Downing Street.

One Scottish Conservative MP suggested his colleagues did not want to fall into the same trap again. “The narrative that Boris wasn’t liked in Scotland was made easier by the fact so few backed him. Many MSPs have either not declared this time, or have backed Liz, to stave off a similar thing happening again with her,” he said.

The MP said Sunak would likely go down better with Scottish voters, given Truss has hitched her wagon more firmly to the right of the party.

In contrast, however, one former Downing Street aide argued Truss would be better-placed to take on the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon.

“I think she’s quite happy to go toe to toe with Nicola,” the ex-official said. “She’ll be able to push back on certain issues and in a way that obviously Boris never would have. Rishi isn’t as robust when it comes to these things — he hasn’t had much fight in Scotland.”

Truss has already come out swinging for Sturgeon, telling one hustings event she would simply “ignore her,” and calling the Scottish first minister an “attention seeker.” Sunak said her comments were “dangerously complacent” about the “existential threat” the SNP poses to the union between Scotland and England.

The stakes are certainly high for Johnson’s successor, with Sturgeon demanding a fresh independence vote next year, and threatening to use the 2024 general election as a de facto referendum if one is not granted.

A tactical preference for a Truss premiership is starting to emerge among the SNP’s activists and lawmakers, due to a feeling that the foreign secretary’s right-wing policies and dismissive attitude toward Sturgeon are more likely to convince skeptical Scots of the merits of independence.

“As a PM, Truss would have a blind spot for the logical, and will almost always opt for the ideologically ridiculous when it comes to major decisions,” said SNP MP and chair of the trade committee Angus MacNeil.

“Of course for the U.K. this is a bad thing, as it will be for the few remaining years of Scotland in the U.K., too. However, the effects are likely to even further accelerate Scotland’s move to independence,” he added. 

Both candidates have set out proposals designed to appeal to Scottish members ahead of their visit to Perth. 

Sunak’s pitch is for greater political scrutiny. He wants to force Scottish and Welsh civil service leaders to answer to the U.K. parliament annually, while U.K. ministers will be “required” to be more visible in Scotland. 

Truss wants to give MSPs parliamentary privilege, so they can be more “robust” when questioning ministers. She promises to push for a trade deal with India that slashes the 150 percent tariff on Scotch whisky (already government policy, but easier said than done, say trade experts) and promote investment zones and unlock the potential of Scottish freeports (also already government policy).

Party insiders who have taken on the SNP before warn that simply shouting about the importance of the Union will not be enough for either candidate. 

The former No. 10 aide cautioned that the next leader must not simply get drawn into a war of words with Scottish nationalists, but instead focus on delivering new proposals to boost jobs and communities in Scotland that will be difficult for the SNP to contradict. 

With Sturgeon’s government currently facing difficult questions on many aspects of its record, including educational attainment, drug deaths and the party’s mishandling of a sex scandal, activists want to see the new prime minister speak about everyday issues and not just the constitution.

A senior Scottish Conservative said: “The Scottish party stands for more than just the Union. You have to recognize what are the other aspects of Scottish life and Scottish uniqueness that need to be both accepted and understood by the candidates.”

This person warned that the Tory members he had spoken to in Scotland were looking at both candidates in dismay, particularly given the vicious blue-on-blue attacks that have characterized the campaign. 

“They’d just like the nonsense to stop,” he said of the Scottish Tory membership. “They’d like some degree of competence and continuity, and that’s all they’re looking for. They’re not looking for gimmicks. They’re not looking for giveaways, they’re looking for solid, good government and focus on the issues that are important.”

They added: “At the moment, it’s like the bumper sticker from the 1960 presidential election: ‘Thank God only one of them can win.’”