Tory leadership race heads to Scotland as Truss and Sunak fight to save Union

Candidates to be Britain's next prime minister set out plans to avert Scottish independence

Scotland's political future is back in focus as its nationalist government leads a renewed push for independence. PA
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The Conservative leadership race headed to Scotland on Tuesday as the two candidates vying to lead the United Kingdom set out how they plan to keep it intact.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are both promising to quell Scotland's independence push with a mixture of financial sweeteners and robust political arm-wrestling with its nationalist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Each will make their case to Tory members at a hustings in Perth on Tuesday evening, in the seventh of 12 such events ― and the only one in Scotland ― before the new party leader and prime minister is announced in early September.

Ms Truss, who previously caused a stir by calling Ms Sturgeon an "attention seeker" it was best to ignore, went down a more conciliatory path before the hustings by promising to boost economic growth in Scotland.

This would involve setting up low-tax free ports in Scotland and making trade deals to reduce tariffs on Scottish whisky, her campaign said.

But she also promised to make life more difficult for the Scottish National Party by granting legal immunity to members of the devolved parliament, in the hope they will be more fearless in grilling the Scottish government.

"For too long, people in Scotland have been let down by the SNP focusing on constitutional division instead of their priorities. That won’t happen under my watch," she said.

Mr Sunak's plan to take the SNP government to task would involve hauling its senior officials down to London to defend their record to parliament, his campaign said.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a second independence referendum in 2023. PA

Conservative ministers and top civil servants in London would be urged to reciprocate by appearing before the Scottish Parliament more often to make their presence felt.

"For too long the SNP has been able to obscure its failures by picking and choosing the data it publishes ― I would change that, ensuring the Scottish government’s record could be held to account," Mr Sunak said.

Scotland has often been an electoral wasteland for the Tories, who hold only six of its 59 seats in parliament, but the desire to stop independence has partially reinvigorated the party north of the border.

Although the SNP likes to joke that Tories visiting Scotland only strengthen the case for independence, Mr Sunak and Ms Truss have promised to go into battle to stop the break-up of the UK.

Mr Sunak cites an array of spending commitments for Scotland that were made when he was chancellor of the exchequer, and publicly chided Ms Truss after her swipe at Ms Sturgeon.

Conservative leadership campaign - in pictures

"Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pose an existential threat to our cherished Union. Arguing that we should ignore them is dangerously complacent," he said.

Ms Sturgeon recently announced October 19, 2023 as her preferred date for a second independence referendum, which is opposed by the Conservative government in London.

A legal battle is looming over whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to call such a vote without approval from Westminster.

Ms Sturgeon says the Scottish Parliament is free to organise a non-binding vote, even if the power to dissolve the 315-year-old Union resides with the UK Parliament alone.

Lawyers for the UK government countered that the objective of the referendum was to bring about independence and that it therefore encroached on powers reserved to Westminster.

The first referendum, in 2014, was held with the consent of prime minister David Cameron, and ended in a 55-45 vote against independence.

The UK government says that should be that for at least a generation, but Ms Sturgeon says circumstances have changed because Britain has since left the European Union against the wishes of Scottish voters.

Updated: August 16, 2022, 10:52 AM
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