The Daily Telegraph

Sunak tries soft touch over SNP gender row

PM says blocking Scottish trans reforms should be considered normal, in first trip to country as leader

- By Simon Johnson scottish political editor

RISHI SUNAK has attempted to dial down a row over controvers­ial Scottish gender reforms but admitted he was concerned about their impact.

Speaking on his first visit to Scotland as Prime Minister, he said it was “entirely reasonable and standard” to look at blocking the Gender Recognitio­n Reform Bill, with a final decision expected next Wednesday.

Despite the Government never having previously used its powers to veto a Scottish Parliament Bill, he tried to suggest such a move would be normal as it was following “a very long-establishe­d, completely standard process”.

Mr Sunak admitted he was worried about the potential impact of the legislatio­n on the rest of the UK and the row was raised at a private, “informal” dinner held with Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, on Thursday evening at the Kingsmills Hotel and Spa in Inverness.

It is feared that the Bill will undermine women’s rights in England’s schools, hospitals and prisons if men travel north of the Border to more easily change their legal gender.

In a second flashpoint, he dismissed her plans to use the next general election as a “de facto” independen­ce referendum, giving her a mandate to open divorce negotiatio­ns with the Government if nationalis­t parties win more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.

The Prime Minister said “people vote for all sorts of things in general elections” and he would campaign on “delivering the people’s priorities”, such as tackling the cost of living crisis and the NHS.

Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, said: “You can’t have a mandate for something that you have no power over. The power rests with Westminste­r; it’s a reserved matter.”

Mr Sunak was visiting the Cromarty Firth in the Scottish Highlands to announce its freeport bid had been successful. A second freeport on the Forth

‘What I’m concerned about is its impact across the UK’

near Edinburgh was also given the green light.

The Prime Minister argued that freeports will help repopulate rural parts of the UK as young people will no longer have to move to the city to fulfil their career ambitions.

He said the special economic zones would mean investment and jobs could be brought to young people rather than them having to leave home.

Arguing “that’s what levelling up should be about”, he said that the young people he had spoken to were “so pumped up because of what it’s going to mean for them and their colleagues and their friends and their neighbours”. Mr Sunak was keen to use the visit to foster a more cooperativ­e relationsh­ip with Ms Sturgeon and her government but any decision next week to issue an unpreceden­ted veto, known as a Section 35 order, would start a dispute.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “Obviously, this is a very sensitive area and I know there were very robust debates and exchanges on it as the Bill was passing in Scotland. What I’m concerned about is its impact across the UK.”

In a polarised age, agreement on any subject can be hard to find. But over one topic a strange unanimity has descended on Tory backbenche­rs and Labour MPS – that the Conservati­ves are resigned to losing the next general election. Certainly, the Government can appear to be focused on minimising the scale of the expected loss, avoiding controvers­y while fixing its attention on a limited number of supposedly achievable objectives. It is easy to see why. After a tumultuous 2022, the Tories are a steady 20 points behind Labour. Despite a massive majority, their coalition is also proving difficult to manage, with splits among MPS on issues as diverse as onshore wind, housebuild­ing targets and the Online Safety Bill.

Neverthele­ss, the Prime Minister may be in danger of missing an opportunit­y. Yesterday brought some positive economic news. The economy grew by a modest 0.1 per cent in November, buoyed by spending associated with the World Cup. It is hardly the strong economic growth that is needed to turn around the nation’s prospects, but a devastatin­g recession may be avoided. The public finances are also in a healthier state than, only a few months ago, had been predicted. Tumbling gas prices, thanks to a warmer than expected winter, are likely to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of the Government’s energy guarantees. Some analysts believe the Treasury will have billions more to play with.

But will Rishi Sunak be able to exploit better economic news politicall­y? Strong growth in the 1990s after the nightmare of Black Wednesday did not prevent a Labour landslide in 1997, and it is possible that many voters have already made up their minds. However, if the Prime Minister can outline a more detailed and optimistic vision for the future, beyond the travails of the present day, and if he can start setting out how the public can expect to benefit from his tough decisions in recent months, why should the Tories not be able to turn the situation around?

That should start in the forthcomin­g Budget. If further evidence emerges that the public finances are in a stronger position than anticipate­d, it would be a mistake for Mr Sunak and the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to stick with some of the painful tax decisions they made last year. Could they scrap the planned increase in corporatio­n tax, for example, to give new momentum to British businesses and entreprene­urs? Could they start to reward Tory voters who have been asked to accept financial pain in order to put the country on a steadier footing?

It will take nimbleness and sharp communicat­ion skills to turn the polls around. But it would surely be a mistake for the Tories to write themselves off just yet.

 ?? ?? Rishi Sunak, the PM, visits a coast guard base at Inverness Airport during a visit to Scotland to highlight benefits of the union
Rishi Sunak, the PM, visits a coast guard base at Inverness Airport during a visit to Scotland to highlight benefits of the union

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