MUSCULAR unionism is set to be on uninhibited display next week when the two rippling contenders for the Conservative crown vie to impress the Scottish judges in the Perth round of the Tory beauty contest.

The chances of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak posing a diplomatically constructive line about current relations with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government, rejecting Indyref2 and bolstering the 315-year-old constitutional marriage between Scotland and England are, dare I say, remote.

However, I do suspect there will be some love-bombing about Scotland; reminiscences of holidaying here perhaps, an emphasis on how many billions of pounds the benevolent UK Treasury hands over to Edinburgh every year and the social and cultural ties that bind neighbours.

And, last but by no means least, the Oxford-born Truss will find it hard to resist mentioning her carefree days at a primary school in Paisley, a period when her left-wing, anti-nuke mum took her on a CND march to Greenham Common and an anti-Thatcher rally, where young Liz joined in shouting: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, oot, oot, oot.”

Indeed, her Glaswegian accent, we’re told, was so strong that when she moved to Leeds, the kids there dubbed her the “haggis-basher”. A nickname that could take on a whole, new meaning, if she gets into Number 10.

But any attempt at issuing constructive lines about co-operating with the SNP administration will, I fear, be drowned out by the sound of political punches being delivered.

Already, the Foreign Secretary has sought to land a haymaker on the Sturgeon chin by dubbing her an “attention-seeker,” who should best be ignored. As if there is a politician on earth, who doesn’t seek attention.

The FM was unusually silent until, that is, she was quizzed on the subject at the Edinburgh Festival when she produced her own uppercut by suggesting at their first meeting, at last year’s COP26 summit, Truss was not so much interested in tackling climate change but enquiring about how she could emulate Sturgeon by getting herself into the glossy pages of Vogue.

When the FM pointed out, helpfully, she had in fact been in the fashion magazine not once but twice, she recalled how Truss looked “as if she had swallowed a wasp”.

The Norfolk MP has described herself as a "child of the Union", dismissing Indyref2 with a Thatcher-like “No. No. No,” stressing what Scots want is delivery and declaring: “I really believe we're a family and we're better together.”

Meanwhile, Sunak, in also ruling out Indyref2, gushed: "There is nothing more Conservative than our precious Union."

He rightly dismissed Truss’s desire to ignore Sturgeon as “dangerously complacent” and argued: “We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and pretend the SNP aren’t there; we need to stop them in their tracks...holding them to account for their failings.”

Of course, early on in the contest the ex-Chancellor proudly declared: “I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite.” Which would not have gone down terribly well with many Scots but, then again, his current audience is a Conservative one with votes to cast.

With the expectation that the Supreme Court will dismiss the Scottish Government’s Indyref2 case, the new PM will face thereafter the unappetising prospect of a two-year campaign in Scotland towards what the FM would like to believe will be a “de facto referendum” at the 2024 General Election.

In 2021, the ex-Tory minister Lord Dunlop saw his report on intergovernmental relations finally published when he grandly called for a post-Brexit, post-Covid “Union of Co-operation,” promoting the “progressive Unionist” case for a renewed UK, which, he said, required “first and foremost the right governing attitude and tone”. Good luck with that one.

The peer bravely added: “A country, where the man in Whitehall accepts he doesn’t always know best and devolution isn’t regarded as a disaster. A country, in which minority voices are heard and taken account of. A country, whose very diversity fuels its dynamism.”

That mirage of sincerity, Michael Gove, who was at the time Boris Johnson’s point-man on Scotland, thanked his colleague for all his “expert analysis,” which, he spluttered, would feed into the Government’s reform programme. Yet suggestions like creating a constitutional affairs supremo in Cabinet never materialised.

Last year in a speech, the ex-Levelling-Up Secretary talked up partnership with Edinburgh and later, under cross-examination by MPs, referred to a “spirit of love,” noting how England thought its long marriage with Scotland “fantastic”.

I venture to suggest that, whoever becomes PM, there won’t be much of a “spirit of love” between them and Sturgeon. They will undoubtedly pursue the policy, which so irks the nationalists, of trying to bypass Edinburgh as much as possible, funnelling funding directly to local councils, which Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, famously described as “real devolution”.

While one ex-Tory minister warned against an “aggressive, muscular Unionism” and, like Dunlop, promoted what SNP MP Pete Wishart mockingly termed “cuddly unionism,” the likelihood is both Sunak and Truss will not seek to smother Sturgeon and her colleagues with reasonableness, rather, match their muscular nationalism with equivalent antagonism. Which would be the wrong thing to do.

Boris Johnson, the idiosyncratic, Old Etonian, high Tory, has been a gift to the nationalist leadership and the FM would naturally want the most right-wing Tory to succeed him in order to help grease the wheels of the constant grievance machine that is the SNP.

To most people, this would be Truss. However, Sturgeon should be careful what she wishes for.

If the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton is right and a Truss win would push more Scots into the grateful arms of Keir Starmer, making a Labour Government more likely and the Union more secure, then Sturgeon might make her “judgement” about moving towards the Bute House exit sooner rather than later.

So, whichever muscular unionist wins the Conservative crown on September 5, their victory could have serious consequences far beyond the borders of the Tory Party.