The favourite to replace Boris Johnson as the UK’s next prime minister has provoked a row with Scottish nationalists by describing Scotland’s first minister as an “attention seeker”.
Liz Truss made the comments about Nicola Sturgeon at a campaign hustings event of Conservative Party members in Exeter, in southwest England.
Questioned over calls for independence putting a strain on the union after 12 years of Tory governments, the leadership candidate was dismissive of her Scottish rival, who has said she intends to hold another referendum next year.
“I feel like I’m a child of the union. That I really believe we are a family and we’re better together. And I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her,” the foreign secretary said.
“I’m sorry, she’s an attention seeker, that’s what she is,” Truss then retorted when it was pointed out that Sturgeon was First Minister and democratically elected.
Truss said it had been agreed that the 2014 referendum — in which Scotland voted by 55% in favour of remaining a part of the United Kingdom — was a “once in a generation” event.
“I didn’t realise a generation happened within ten years. That doesn’t make any sense. So we’ve got to call her out on that,” she said.
Scottish Deputy First Minister John Swinney called Truss’ comments “completely and utterly unacceptable”, as well as “deeply troubling and obnoxious”.
Despite the UK government’s repeated refusal, Nicola Sturgeon intends to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence on 19 October 2023.
Scotland’s pro-independence leader has referred the question of a new independence referendum to the UK Supreme Court, to determine whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate to hold a new vote without the British government’s agreement. The hearing is scheduled for mid-October.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) believes that Brexit, which the Scots voted against by 62% in 2016, has changed the game since the 2014 vote. The SNP’s aim is for Scotland to join the European Union as an independent state.
Questioned on relations with the EU at the Exeter hustings event, Truss also said she would be prepared to walk away from negotiations over disputed trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
As foreign secretary, she has been leading talks with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit divorce treaty.
Truss cited UK legislation now going through parliament to allow the government to ditch parts of the agreement as one of her most important achievements, reportedly saying that “strength” was “the one thing the EU understands”.
“What nonsense,” commented Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultants, on Twitter. “Frost Deja vu all over again,” he added, in a reference to Truss’ predecessor as UK Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost, equally viewed as intransigent by EU officials.
Last month the European Commission launched new infringement procedures against the UK over the implementation of the protocol, accusing London of failing to comply with provisions covering trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Truss, 47, is vying with former Chancellor (finance minister) Rishi Sunak to become the next Conservative Party leader and therefore the new UK prime minister. She has seen a surge in endorsements from prominent Tory MPs after favourable polling among the party membership and recent TV debates.
Party members have until 2 September to vote by post to appoint a successor to Boris Johnson, who announced his resignation almost a month ago after a series of scandals. The result is expected to be announced on 5 September.