Sunak hits back at SNP criticism of election timing

Rishi Sunak speaks with member of staff at Global Energy Group's facility at the Port of Nigg during election campaigning on Thursday
Rishi Sunak speaks with staff at Global Energy Group's facility at the Port of Nigg during election campaigning on Thursday - Henry Nicholls/Pool AFP

Rishi Sunak has accused John Swinney of trying to distract voters from the SNP’s education record by complaining that the general election coincides with the Scottish school holidays.

The First Minister said Mr Sunak’s decision to pick July 4 was the Tories’ “latest act of disrespect” towards Scotland, as many families would be away on holiday at the time.

He claimed the decision demonstrated the Conservatives’ “contempt” for Scotland.

However, the Prime Minister said Mr Swinney was trying to “distract” voters from SNP “failures” on education “and the fact that they’ve let down Scottish schoolchildren.”

Speaking on a visit to Scotland on the first day of the election campaign, he said Scottish schools had “plummeted” down international league tables while the SNP government had focused on independence instead.

The Prime Minister’s intervention came after Mr Swinney launched the SNP’s campaign in Edinburgh by insisting he could lead the SNP to victory in an “independence day” election.

Despite polls predicting the SNP will be routed at the ballot box, he said he had “no doubt” that his party could “win” in Scotland.

Mr Swinney previously claimed he would have a mandate to demand another independence referendum if the SNP won a majority of the 57 seats that will be contested following boundary changes.

Rishi Sunak speaks with Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the Port of Nigg near Inverness, Scotland
Rishi Sunak held talks with Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, during his visit to the Port of Nigg - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

Sir Keir Starmer is to travel north of the border on Friday to launch the Scottish Labour campaign.

A poll this week showed the SNP could have only 11 MPs left after the election, a dramatic reduction from the 48 seats it won in 2019.

Labour was predicted to surge from the one seat it won at the last election to 35, in a major boost for Sir Keir Starmer’s hopes of getting the keys to Number 10.

The Tories would hold their six Scottish seats despite the slump in their UK-wide vote, according to the poll.

Both Unionist parties have dismissed Mr Swinney’s complaints about the timing, arguing turnout will not be affected in Scotland thanks to the warmer weather and the ability to apply for a postal vote.

Mr Sunak said: “If John Swinney and the SNP want to talk about Scottish schools, what they should be focused on is the fact that they’ve let down Scottish schoolchildren for years and years.

“Scottish schools used to be the envy, not just of the United Kingdom, but the envy of the world, and under the SNP’s leadership Scottish schools have plummeted down international league tables, letting down a generation of schoolchildren.

“That’s what we should be focused on. But the SNP aren’t focused on that because they’re focused on independence and it just shows that they’ve got absolutely the wrong priorities.”

The SNP's Kate Forbes (left) and John Swinney in Holyrood on Thursday
The SNP's Kate Forbes (left) and John Swinney in Holyrood on Thursday. Their party has complained about the timing of July's vote - Colin Fisher / Alamy Live News

The Prime Minister also mocked Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, for calling for an election this week only for the SNP to “suddenly decide that they didn’t think that was the right thing to do and focus on process and distract from their failures and the fact that they’ve let down Scottish schoolchildren.”

Scottish pupils scored record-low results in reading, maths and science in an authoritative international study published last year, falling further behind their counterparts in England.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found an 18-point decline in maths since the tests were last administered in 2018 - the equivalent of nearly an entire year of schooling.

Mr Sunak said the SNP was “so obsessed with independence and constitutional change, that they take their eye off the ball on the day-to-day things that matter to people here in Scotland.”

He added: “Every time I’m here, people are talking to me about the cost of living and while I’m busy trying to cut taxes for working people in Scotland, the SNP have made Scotland the highest tax part of the UK, not just for high earners but for everyone earning just over £28,500, and it just shows that priorities are not in the right place.”

Speaking ahead of his visit to Glasgow, Sir Keir said: “The Labour Party is humbly asking for the opportunity to change the country. To serve the entire country.

“To be clear, there is no national renewal without a strong Scotland. There is no Labour without Scotland. There is no changed Britain without Scotland.”