Rishi Sunak: I will take on Nicola Sturgeon and stop the SNP in their tracks

·6-min read
Sunak Sturgeon
Sunak Sturgeon

Rishi Sunak has accused Liz Truss of being “dangerously complacent” about the threat Nicola Sturgeon poses to the Union and warned SNP government attempts to alter a children's book created for the Platinum Jubilee showed the lengths they would go to.

The former chancellor said that “we can’t just bury our heads in the sand and pretend” the SNP does not exist after Ms Truss said earlier this week Ms Sturgeon was an “attention seeker” it was best to ignore.

Speaking to The Telegraph ahead of his first visit to Scotland on Saturday in his Tory leadership campaign, he said he wanted to “take Nicola Sturgeon on” and pledged to highlight her record in government at the Commons dispatch box.

He ruled out allowing another separation vote for as long as he was prime minister and warned Ms Sturgeon she faced a public backlash over her plan to “hijack” the next general election and turn it into a “de facto” independence referendum.

Mr Sunak also lashed out at “petty” Scottish government civil servants who demanded that mentions of Queen Elizabeth II, Brexit and England’s 1966 World Cup victory be removed from a children's book commemorating the Platinum Jubilee.

Official emails revealed this week showed the SNP administration asked for 52 changes to be made to the draft text of the book, which was meant as a gift for children across the UK, only to disassociate itself from the project.

Mr Sunak said “the vast majority of people in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom are really proud of our history” and the row demonstrated the ends the separatists would go to to try and undermine the Union.

His intervention came after Ms Truss, the leadership frontrunner, told a hustings in Exeter on Monday night that she would say “no, no, no” to allowing another referendum if she becomes Prime Minister.

To rapturous applause, the Foreign Secretary said: “I think the best thing we can do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her. I’m sorry, she’s an attention seeker, that's all she is.”

Ms Sturgeon poked fun at the comments on Friday, posting a picture of a “cute seal in beautiful Argyll” and saying it “might be a bit of an attention seeker” alongside a winking emoji.

But speaking ahead of a visit to Edinburgh, Mr Sunak said: “Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pose an existential threat to our cherished Union. Arguing that we should ignore them is dangerously complacent.

“We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and pretend they aren’t there - we need to stop them in their tracks.”

Asked whether he would be playing into her hands if, as prime minister, he engaged her in an argument about independence, he said: “Actually, I want to take her on, and I want to win the argument.

“And the way to do that is to hold the SNP to account for its record in Scotland. As prime minister of the United Kingdom, I (would) care about the citizens everywhere and make sure that people in Scotland get the schools, the health service that they deserve.

“And if that’s not happening, even after the UK Government has transferred record sums to the SNP, then it’s absolutely right that the SNP are held to account for that record.”

Rather than hand Ms Sturgeon’s government more money after “overseeing a decline in the quality of Scottish schools” and the worst accident and emergency times on record, Mr Sunak’s campaign said he would “call out the SNP at the despatch box”.

Among his other proposals for beating the SNP were overhauling the Union Unit in 10 Downing Street, ensuring more UK Government ministers go to Scotland and listening to Scottish councils about where Ms Sturgeon's administration was failing.

He pledged to ensure that every Government department operated “UK-wide”, even in policy areas that are the responsibility of Ms Sturgeon’s administration, ending the “Whitehall mentality of devolve and forget”.

In addition, every Tory target seat in Scotland would get a fully-funded campaign manager and the UK chairman would review how the Scottish Conservatives could be better supported.

Sunak - Peter Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images
Sunak - Peter Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images

This year, all primary children in England from year six to reception automatically received a copy of a book commemorating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, but Scottish schools were forced to opt-in online if they wanted some for their pupils.

Emails released under Freedom of Information this week showed SNP government civil servants objected to the book using the title Queen Elizabeth II as “she is not the second Queen Elizabeth here”.

This was a reference to the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland occurring after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. They also argued against the inclusion of Brexit and England’s 1966 World Cup win, arguing it was “an event that doesn’t seem to merit this level of exposure”.

But Mr Sunak said: “It does seem like it’s petty to want to try and alter our history. Our history is our history. And I think actually, the vast majority of people in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom are really proud of our history.”

Arguing it demonstrated “what we're dealing with”, he said: “Even when it seems like the UK Government was trying to be constructive, it still wasn’t enough and it just shows that nothing will ever appear enough.

“There are people who want to undermine the Union at every opportunity that they get.  That’s wrong and as Prime Minister, I’ll be robust in sticking up for the Union and our shared history.”

Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan - Pool/Getty Images
Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan - Pool/Getty Images

The First Minister wants to stage another referendum in October next year and a Supreme Court battle in the autumn is expected to determine whether she can hold a legal vote without the prime minister’s authority.

Mr Sunak refused to “jump ahead of ourselves” by stating what he would do if Ms Sturgeon won the case but reiterated that “a referendum right now is the wrong priority at the wrong time”.

If she loses the case, the First Minister’s backup plan is to argue the next general election is a “de facto” referendum and demand independence negotiations with the UK Government if the SNP polls more than 50 per cent.

But Mr Sunak said: “I don't think that's right and I think people in Scotland as well have made the case that trying to hijack a general election for an issue like that wouldn’t be right and wouldn’t be constitutional.

“That general election is about many, many things and trying to hijack it for separatist ends is not right and I don’t think people will respond well to that.”

Mhairi Black, an SNP MP, said: “Scotland hasn’t voted for the Tories for more than 50 years, yet we keep getting saddled with Tory governments and Tory prime ministers who will only ever work to widen the inequalities gap and try to block Scotland’s democratic right to choose its own future.”