I DIDN’T want Liz Truss to win the Conservative Party leadership contest but I’m now happy to eat humble pie and admit I was wrong to write her off earlier in the contest.
I’ve found myself fascinated at the ebb and flow of all the TV debates, hustings and media grilling that the would-be Prime Ministers have faced. But as the founder of Scottish business group SBUK, with members from diverse party backgrounds (and none) I have shared most people’s desire to see the whole thing concluded more quickly. We urgently need the winner to press on with tackling the myriad of challenges we face as a country.
My own initial choice, Penny Mordaunt, fared well initially, both among MPs and in polls of Conservative members who, like me, liked the prospect of a fresh face taking over. I still think that she has a leading role to play in the parliamentary party and hopefully in the cabinet too. So too do those, like Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat, who brought diverse perspectives and impressed on the national stage.
But when the choice came down to two finalists, I thought it was Rishi who had the clear edge in terms of a plan for the economy and a track record for sensible delivery – and that’s who I voted for. Yet what I said about Liz Truss – that I was concerned about the consistency of her track record and what this meant for her potential style of leadership – has, I think, been tested fairly in the heat of the campaign. I like her optimism and ‘can-do’ attitude to tackling our deep problems. It’s far better for a leader to talk up than talk down the economy and she knows this.
Plus, Liz Truss has shown that on the Union she won’t dance to the SNP’s tune. She says she’ll be a Prime Minister for the whole Union, putting our shared interests front and centre of all policy. She understands that we are a family of nations, stronger together than apart. And I applaud her intent to shine a spotlight on the SNP’s performance in its ‘day job’ at Holyrood. If she can find mechanisms to help voters understand their track record of poor government performance then that would be a positive step forward. She’s also right to say “not on my watch” when it comes to a second referendum on breaking up the UK.
In short, if she becomes Prime Minister I will be wishing Liz Truss every success, just as I think she should receive the full backing of a party that needs to unite and get behind a Prime Minister facing such a daunting array of challenges over the next few years.
Top of the ‘day one’ list of tasks will be the energy crunch and cost of living crisis facing millions across the UK this autumn and winter. I think it’s clear that both candidates get the need to act decisively. Once Boris Johnson made it clear that he would leave substantive changes in policy direction to his successor, each has been chomping at the bit to implement their own approach. Both Rishi and Liz have excellent teams around them ready to pick up the levers of state and put them to the enormous task of tackling inflation while returning the economy to growth.
There must be rigorous focus on these twin challenges, which against the backdrop of the continuing war in Ukraine, the growing impact of climate change, and sustained global supply chain volatility, is a daunting prospect.
Of course, it doesn’t help that in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP remain intent on steering the ship of state into the self-confected iceberg of a new independence referendum. While the Scottish Nationalists’ Supreme Court bid to force the UK Government to endorse a ballot in 2023 looks set to fail, we still face the reality that the devolved government in Scotland will do everything it can to break up the Union. They don’t care that it would turn the UK’s economic outlook from tough to terminal if they succeeded.
Liz Truss was spot on to say during the campaign that ‘selfie loving’ Nicola Sturgeon craves attention. That wasn’t a jibe at Scotland or Scots, but a frank assessment that the SNP leader’s only validation is to draw attention to a single political cause which no UK Prime Minister can or should endorse. The SNP has proven over 15 years that it isn’t much cop at running Scotland, it loves centralised control and that it hates scrutiny of its own performance. All the First Minister wants to talk about is independence and that means her heart has never been in the task of working constructively with UK Prime Ministers to improve the lot of people in Scotland.
Nonetheless the UK Government and our new Prime Minister must remain ready to show the willingness to work together that Ms Sturgeon never will. However tempting it might be to “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon, they must carry on and further develop work that got well underway during Boris Johnson’s tenure to embrace the real interests of Scotland.
If that means more HM Treasury funding allocated directly for Scottish local authorities, charities and businesses then great. The UK Government needs to continue showing what it can do for people across the UK and the results must be judged on outcomes like productivity growth and inward investment. Last week’s GERS figures, showing a fiscal gap between what Scotland spends and what it raises in revenue of £23.7 billion, showed once again that we depend on the pooling and sharing of resources across the Union to sustain vital services and employment. UK ministers must reject absurd complaints that it is trashing devolution when it is actually keeping devolved spending commitments afloat.
Anyway, it is the hypocritical SNP and their coalition partners the Scottish Greens that would do most to smash devolution by breaking up the UK.
These are truths that Scotland’s business community understand well. There is great scope for the new Prime Minister to spend time in Scotland and listen to business leaders here who have grown sick and tired of a Scottish Government that just doesn’t get what’s needed to support business. Most business leaders appreciate the continuing value of being in the UK for their sectors. More and more are getting worried that after the disruption and threat of the 2014 referendum another bout of pointless constitutional bloodletting will tip them over the edge. How about creating a new business forum that allows Scottish business leaders a regular opportunity to communicate and inform the UK Government directly on policy on Scotland and how we should calibrate the internal market across the UK?
My message to the new Prime Minister is simple. Yes, you will face acute challenges aplenty in the days, weeks and months ahead, and yes one of those challenges is to get your approach to Scotland right. But don’t be deterred because even if the First Minister isn’t prepared to work constructively with you, so many, especially in the business community, want to pull together for the common good across the UK.