Rishi Sunak to hold face-to-face talks with Nicola Sturgeon in pro-Union move

Rishi Sunak - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rishi Sunak – Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rishi Sunak will meet face-to-face with Nicola Sturgeon during her first visit to Scotland as Prime Minister, which begins Thursday, as part of an engagement strategy against support for Scottish independence.

Mr. Sunak will reveal the locations of two new “green” free ports expected to be near Inverness and Edinburgh, while trying to highlight the UK’s benefit to the Scots.

His approach is in stark contrast to that of Sturgeon, who described the Scottish First Minister as “interest-seeking”, and Liz Truss, who had not spoken once during her 49-day premiership.

Mr. Sunak spoke to Ms. Sturgeon on his first day at Number 10, met her in his first month, and now plans to hold talks during his trip north of the border.

The Telegraph can reveal the details and broad thinking behind the visit, which is expected to begin late Thursday and run through Friday.

Whitehall insiders noted how Mr Sunak’s interactions with Ms Sturgeon were “much warmer” and “more constructive” than their predecessors Ms Truss or Boris Johnson.

The SNP’s path to another independence referendum is complicated by the Supreme Court’s rejection of unilateral voting plans, while ministers hope to strengthen UK ties.

At the core of the approach is to do more to demonstrate the tangible benefits of Scotland’s position in the UK, for example the potential economic growth from Treasury-funded “green” free ports.

Free ports, which create low-tax areas around ports in the UK to encourage investment, have been championed by Mr Sunak since his back row days. Expansion to Scotland took months, but eventually the Scottish and UK governments jointly supported the plan.

Among the five bids on Mr. Sunak’s tour, the two winning sites are expected to be announced. The Cromarty Firth near Inverness and the Forth estates in Edinburgh are expected to win.

Later this month, hundreds of millions of new investments for Scottish estates are expected to be announced when decisions on the second round of the leveling fund are announced.

During his trip, Mr. Sunak may note the financial benefit that Scots, like all Britons, have enjoyed from freezing their energy bills this winter – a decision taken at Westminster.

Opinion polls suggested that she was significantly more popular than Mr Johnson in Scotland, and also more popular than Mrs Truss, albeit by a smaller margin.

An Ipsos Mori poll last summer found that 74 percent of Scots had a negative opinion of Mr Johnson, compared with 60 percent of Mrs Truss and 59 percent of Mr Altar. A YouGov poll in December gave Mr. Sunak an even better score than the two before him.

The Prime Minister’s approach to engagement, rather than Ms. Truss’ vow to “ignore” Ms. Sturgeon, reflects her generally less combative approach to the premiership.

Mr. Sunak called for “open” and “honest” talks with the striking unions.

He and Ms. Sturgeon are expected to meet on Thursday, but exact timings have yet to be set. A joint visit was also discussed on Friday, but is not expected at this time.

The two met in Blackpool for the Anglo-Irish Council Summit on 11 November. Ms. Sturgeon later tweeted a photo of herself smiling and shaking hands.

More informal discussions took place during a dinner at the meeting, and both were said to have developed their relationship at the top table.

Mr. Sunak’s willingness to participate is in contrast to Mrs. Truss, who promised to do the opposite while she garnered Tory grassroots support in the summer leadership race she won. She once said: “I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is to ignore her. I’m sorry, she’s an attention freak.

But the engagement strategy has its limitations. He clashed with the recently elected SNP leader Stephen Flynn at Westminster in Prime Ministerial Questions on Wednesday, offering his “wholehearted support” to the Scottish oil and gas industry, accusing the SNP of not doing the same.

A Downing Street spokesperson declined to comment.

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