Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon have met for talks for the first time since the Tory leader became Prime Minister in autumn 2022. The Scottish First Minister greeted the prime minister in Inverness on Thursday (12 January).
Tensions between the SNP and Westminster remain high as the party seeks to hold a new independence referendum. The campaign hit a roadblock in November 2022 after the Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government must obtain permission to hold the vote from Westminster, which Sunak has refused.
Sunak has said that he wants to work “constructively” with the SNP amid the tensions. There have also been suggestions made by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack that Westminster may step in to reverse the recent Holyrood approval of gender reforms in Scotland.
The meeting between Sunak and Sturgeon also saw the pair announce a new initiative to open green freeports in Scotland. The move will see the ports opened in Inverness and Cromarty Firth.
But what did both leaders say about the major issues? Here’s everything you need to know.
What did Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon say about Scottish independence?
Tensions between the Tories and the SNP over a new independence has remained high, and was inflamed further during the 2022 summer leadership campaign. The race, in which Rishi Sunak faced off against the eventual winner Liz Truss, saw Truss proclaim that she would gladly “ignore” the SNP’s aim of another referendum and their leader, Nicola Strugeon.
Truss also branded Sturgeon an “attention-seeker”. Sunak has taken a friendlier approach, stating that he wanted to “reset” Westminster’s relationship with the Scottish government, however he has remained staunchly against granting another referendum.
Sturgeon and Sunak are said to have held a “robust” private meeting about the issue as they met in Inverness. The Scottish first minister described the encounter as “perfectly constructive and cordial”, adding: "Clearly Rishi Sunak and I disagree on lots, but we were able to talk about some of the areas where the Scottish and UK governments can work together.”
The pair also spoke about devolved matters, including the NHS which is currently under immense pressure at both a UK and Scottish level. Sturgeon told Good Morning Scotland that the discussion about the NHS did not include any promise of further funding from the UK government.
She said: “No indication from the Prime Minister of new money, but hopefully we will see strong investment in the NHS. The Scottish Government continues to work hard to avert strike action in the NHS.”
What did Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon say about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill?
In December 2022, the Scottish government passed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which will make the process for trans people to legally change their gender easier in Scotland. However, the debate and vote was shrouded in controversy as gender critical demonstrators repeatedly protested inside and outside parliament against the introduction of the measures.
While the vote eventually passed by 86 votes to 39, the UK government has made some suggestions that it could interfere with the legislation and prevent it from becoming law in Scotland. Scottish Secretary Alistair Jack said following the vote that his office would look into what could be done to stop the bill becoming law, including using the veto powers in the Scotland Act, while equalities minister Kemi Badenoch added that Westminster was “now looking at provisions that can prompt reconsideration”.
While in Inverness, Sunak said that he was “concerned” about the impact the introduction of gender recognition reforms in Scotland could have on the UK as a whole. He also remained tight-lipped over his government’s plans to block the bill.
He said: “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.
“There may be impacts across the UK that we need to be aware of and understand the impact of, and that’s what we’re doing, and once the Government has received final advice it will set out next steps.”
His standpoint was rebutted by SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who told Good Morning Scotland: “This is not just a question about the GRR (Gender Recognition Reform Bill) or people’s individual views on it. This is about democracy.
“The Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of legislation that sits within devolved competencies, and it’s incumbent upon Westminster to ensure that legislation is passed in full.”
What did Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon say about new green freeports?
The big announcement from Sturgeon and Sunak’s meeting was that of the introduction of two new green freeports in Scotland. Sunak said: “In extending the benefits of freeports to Scotland, we are unleashing the potential of the Firth of Forth and Inverness and Cromarty Firth – backing the delivery of thousands of high-quality green jobs for future generations as we continue to make gains on our commitments to transition to net zero.”
The new project, backed by £52million of UK government funding, is estimated to bring in £10.8billion in investment, as well as creating 75,000 jobs. Scottish deputy first minister John Swinney described it as a “milestone achievement in the process to deliver green freeports for Scotland”.