Rishi Sunak and Scotland: Why a new prime minister is no cause for celebration for Nicola Sturgeon - opinion
At least he picked up the phone. New prime minister Rishi Sunak's 10pm call to Nicola Sturgeon on his first day in the job was in marked contrast to his predecessor LIz Truss's failure, throughout her short spell in Downing Street, to make any official contact with the First Minister.
During the summer Tory leadership contest which she won Ms Truss described Ms Sturgeon as "an attention-seeker" who should be "ignored". And once installed, she proceeded to do exactly that. The only times they spoke were informal exchanges at events following the Queen's death.
Mr Sunak is more courteous, so he made the call, but clearly contact does not mean consensus. So although Ms Sturgeon described the conversation as "constructive" it is unlikely to lead anywhere. Mr Sunak has no more intention of facilitating an independence referendum or doing anything to enhance the position or powers of the Scottish Parliament than Liz Truss or any of their colleagues. Indeed the Conservatives have focused so much for so many years on blocking a referendum that it is now obligatory to maintain the most hard-line stance possible.
At the summer leadership hustings in Perth, Ms Truss dismissed Indyref 2 bluntly: “Not now, not ever.” Mr Sunak’s answer was Theresa May’s line – “Now is not the time”. And when asked when the time might be right, he said it was “hard to imagine the circumstances”. It may be tempting to detect a subtle difference in their positions here, but it looks like a difference which doesn’t exist other than that Mr Sunak has a more polite way of ruling it out.
It is possible that Mr Sunak and Ms Sturgeon could establish better relations than there were between the First Minister and either Liz Truss or Boris Johnson. That wouldn’t be difficult. After their phone call Ms Sturgeon tweeted: "I expressed hope that we will build a UK/Scottish Government relationship based on mutual respect." But she quickly added that she had also voiced "my fear that further austerity will do real damage to people and public services". The truth is there will never be a meeting of minds.
After the endless bluster of Boris Johnson and self-proclaimed “boldness” of Liz Truss, people may have hoped for something a little more bland from Rishi Sunak. But he has thrown away any chance of establishing an image of calm, quiet, competent government with the controversial re-appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary and his decision not to attend COP27.
And his stance on Scotland is not reassuring either. At those Perth hustings he called for "proper accountability and scrutiny about what the SNP government is doing", including the Permanent Secretary answering questions at Westminster on devolved matters. Such a move would mark a worrying backward step in the accepted operation of devolution. The Scottish Government is accountable to the Scottish Parliament and ultimately to the Scottish people. If the UK government or parliament seek to insert themselves into that relationship it raises immediate questions about their motives.
The best that could have been expected with Mr Sunak was a polite stand-off. Now Ms Sturgeon might find herself wondering it was better being ignored.