Rishi Sunak may smile at Nicola Sturgeon, but he's no friend of the Scottish Government – Ian Swanson
It was all smiles in the official photograph when Rishi Sunak met Nicola Sturgeon on his first visit to Scotland as Prime Minister. And both sides described their discussions over a private dinner in an Inverness hotel as "cordial and constructive".
Ms Sturgeon is now on her fifth UK premier and Mr Sunak got off to a good start – firstly, just by turning up, unlike his predecessor Liz Truss, who didn't find time during her chaotic and short-lived period in office even to pick up the phone to Scotland's First Minister; and secondly, by not being Boris Johnson. Ms Truss had labelled the First Minister an attention seeker who was best ignored and proceeded to do just that.
Mr Johnson viewed devolution as “a disaster” and Ms Sturgeon openly declared him unfit to be Prime Minister, making no effort to hide her distaste on the few occasions when they were photographed together.
So, with almost any successor, things could only get better. But despite Mr Sunak’s politer approach and a pleasanter picture, the fundamental differences have not changed. Mr Sunak and Ms Sturgeon have sharply different political outlooks and different views, not just on independence, but on public spending, the NHS, immigration and countless other key issues.
The new man in Number 10 is just as determined as his predecessors that there will be no Indyref2. And indeed Mr Sunak could be seen as even more of a threat, from Ms Sturgeon’s point of view, than his predecessors. The pair are on collision course over the SNP’s plans to treat the next UK general election as a de facto referendum on independence.
And he may be about to take the constitutional battle onto virgin territory by blocking Ms Sturgeon’s gender reform legislation. The Bill making it easier for trans people to secure a gender recognition certificate has already been passed by the Scottish Parliament, but the UK could take the unprecedented step of using a Section 35 order to veto the new law before it receives Royal Assent. Such a challenge to the powers of Holyrood could well end in another Supreme Court clash.
Mr Sunak will also be happy to continue the UK’s more low-key assault on devolution through direct initiatives on projects in Scotland which either co-opt or bypass the Scottish Government. His visit last week included the long-awaited announcement of two Green Freeports, awarded to the Firth of Forth and Cromarty.
Although it is a joint programme between the UK and Scottish governments, it started as a Westminster mission and some are not convinced that the environmental and employment protections inserted at Scottish insistence are all that robust. Then there’s the Levelling Up Fund, which sees the UK Government hand money direct to Scottish councils without reference to Holyrood, including a £16.5 million cash injection for Edinburgh's Granton waterfront regeneration project.
Mr Sunak also called last year for "proper accountability and scrutiny about what the SNP government is doing", including Scottish officials being questioned by committees at Westminster. Who knows where that could lead?
Ms Sturgeon is no doubt pleased to see the back of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss but despite the smiles and talk of working together, the new Prime Minister is no friend of the Scottish Government.