The Independent

Sunak let Sturgeon’s party blow itself out at PMQs


I would say that the Scottish National Party came to Prime Minister’s Questions spoiling for a fight, if I weren’t reluctant to use the language of fisticuffs to describe the testing of rival ideas in the nation’s highest democratic forum.

What was striking, though, was that Rishi Sunak was determined to avoid engaging in anything as interestin­g as an

argument. He decided from the start of his four-week-old premiershi­p that he would “kill his enemies with cream” in a phrase Peter Mandelson once described as a maxim of Tony Blair’s.

Sunak learned from the Conservati­ve leadership campaign in the summer – mostly from the mistakes made by his opponent. Liz Truss got into trouble for a jokey aside aimed at the partisan instincts of Tory members when she said she would “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon. Sunak has pursued the opposite strategy of paying respectful attention to the first minister and saying, as he did at Prime Minister’s Questions: “Now is the time for politician­s to work together, and that is what this government will do.”

Today, it became clear that this strategy includes not even pretending to answer the question when seven SNP MPs asked it. It was the single transferab­le question, asked with minor variations of sloganisin­g by every nationalis­t MP called, starting with Ian Blackford, the leader of the Westminste­r delegation. The question was: “If the UK is a voluntary union, how can the people of Scotland obtain a referendum on whether they want to continue with it?”

The answer, every time, was that the UK is a collaborat­ive and constructi­ve union and that the government is working night and day to ensure that the benefits of the union are felt by the honourable member’s constituen­ts.

Sunak has worked out that a Conservati­ve government in London is the best promoter of the independen­ce cause

The answer infuriated the SNP contingent. They think their question is a good one and in a way it is because it is a way of distractin­g from the failures of their government in Edinburgh and from Sturgeon’s defeat in the Supreme Court yesterday morning. There is a good answer to the question, too, which is that there should be another referendum when it is clear that a settled and decisive majority of Scottish residents want independen­ce, but in the meantime the SNP should abide by the democratic instructio­n delivered in 2014.

Sunak could even quote Sturgeon in her response to the Supreme Court’s verdict, when she said: “Fundamenta­lly, our job in the independen­ce movement today is the same as it was yesterday: to persuade the people of Scotland that independen­ce is the way forward.” But Sunak judges that it would only help the SNP to enter an exchange of views about when such a test might be met.

Boris Johnson made a similar calculatio­n, deciding that his answer to the question was just: “Now is not the time.” Sunak won’t go even that far, because he doesn’t want to invite the next question, which is: “When will the time be?” Hence today’s stonewall.

The prime minister’s defences could not be broken. In a statistica­l freak, six SNP MPs had secured questions to him on

the order paper. This involved some learned discussion in the press gallery about the chances of a party with 9 per cent of eligible MPs securing 40 per cent of the listed questions in the “shuffle”, a supposedly random selection by computer. My view is that the SNP is more discipline­d than other parties in requiring every single MP to table a question, so its chances of them getting on the order paper is higher, but even so chance was on their side today.

Sunak met each of the eight questions (including two from Blackford, the Commons leader) with the same uninterest­ing response, saying he believed in cooperatio­n between our government­s.

Even Theresa May found this frustratin­g. She asked a “question”, which included the ringing plea to the SNP “for once to put the people of Scotland first and end its obsession with breaking up the country”. Tory backbenche­rs loved it, but Sunak was embarrasse­d. Taking the fight to the SNP is not the strategy, so he got up, said he agreed with his predecesso­r and sat down again.

Not even a question from Sara Britcliffe, a Tory MP who asked him about Lancashire Day, could tempt Sunak, a Yorkshire MP, to make a joke about how, if their two counties could work together, so could Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Sunak has worked out that a Conservati­ve government in London is the best promoter of the independen­ce cause. The only way round that would be for him to lose the next election – a Labour government of the UK is the last thing Sturgeon wants. But if there must be a Conservati­ve prime minister, the best way to avoid boosting the SNP is to refuse to argue with it.

It produced a strangely flat PMQs, not much livened by a ritual exchange of slogans with Keir Starmer at the start, but it is probably effective politics.

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