RISHI Sunak has said the Union is "under real risk” as he ruled out granting Nicola Sturgeon the independence referendum she wants to hold in October next year.

The former Chancellor said his ministers would be “more active” in delivering projects in Scotland if he was Prime Minister, something likely to lead to accusations from the First Minister of disrespecting devolution.

He also said there had to be more emotional arguments for the Union to counter the “seductive and romantic” appeal of nationalism.

Mr Sunak made the points in a Q&A in the first of 12 regional leadership hustings organised by the Conservative party for its members.

Despite a confident performance, his rival Liz Truss, more relaxed than in previous outings, appeared to go down better with the audience in Leeds.

A former resident, she was repeatedly applauded for her local references.
One audience member also accused Mr Sunak of stabbing Boris Johnson in the back. Mr Sunak said his economic differences with the PM made his resignation inevitable.

Mr Sunak , who said it was “pretty clear” he was the underdog in the race for No10, got off to an awkward start with a dated joke about his skin colour.

"The sun has been shining - so much so that someone even said to me the other day 'wow, you've got a great tan'," he said to some uneasy laughter.

Asked how he intended to keep Scotland in the Union, Mr Sunak said: “We're under real risk. The best things we can do are be firm with Nicola Sturgeon about another referendum. We need to make sure that in government in Whitehall that we don't just devolve and forget, which for many years has been the institutional imperative.

“We as UK Government ministers have to be more active in Scotland, we have to be more active about delivering benefits of the Union on the ground to the people in Scotland and working constructively there to do that. 

“And crucially, when you're countering nationalism, we can't just talk in arguments to do with our head. 

“It's easy to talk about borrowing and debt and trade and pensions and currency. But ultimately, nationalism is a seductive and romantic idea. 

“So we have got to make arguments about the union that speak to people's hearts and speak to their emotions. Because if we focus just on the practicalities, we will not be successful. And I think we can do that.”

In her Q&A, Ms Truss said she would ensure girls-only toilets in schools when asked about gender neutral loos.

She added: “We've got an audience full of straight talking Yorkshire people who know that a woman is a woman.”

The Foreign Secretary also echoed Boris Johnson’s name calling of Sir Keir Starmer, calling the Labour leader a “patronising plastic patriot”.

She said she was “completely committed” to the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project to revitalise links between Liverpool and Leeds, saying public transport hadn’t got much better since she was a teenager in Leeds.

The UK Government scaled back the NPR scheme last year to one new line, with only improvements on others, to the fury of local political leaders. 

But she did not commit to reinstating the abandoned eastern leg of HS2 between the East Midlands and Leeds.

Jake Berry, the influential chair of the red wall group of Tory MPs, endorsed Ms Truss during her visit, saying she was “the person with energy to bring action and delivery to make sure that we level up our United Kingdom”.

Earlier, Ms Truss had to defend her record as Foreign Secretary after a stinging report on her department said it was not doing enough on Russia.

The Institute for Government said the Foreign Office unit covering Russia had been “consistently among the worst resourced” from 2016 to 2022.

The think tank blamed a policy ’tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific region.

“As the Cold War faded into memory and other threats to the UK became dominant, the Foreign Office’s focus on Russia softened. With current events in Ukraine, this is not sustainable,” it said. 

The IfG also said the Foreign Office had “not yet fully found its feet” since taking responsibility for international aid, and must improve staff morale.
Many of the issues pre-dated Ms Truss taking over as Foreign Secretary last September, but not all of them.

Ms Truss said it was “completely untrue” that the Foreign Office under her lacked expertise on Russia.

She said: “We have led the world in standing up to Russia. We were the first country to send weapons to Ukraine in Europe, we put the toughest sanctions on Russia of any country, and we’re also making sure that nobody is allowing Ukraine’s sovereign territory to be given up, and we’ve worked with our allies to achieve that. I’m proud of our record, but we need to do more, and one of the key areas in bringing down the cost of living is dealing with Russia – making sure they can’t hold the world to ransom over their gas supplies – and I will be tough in standing up to Putin.”

Mr Sunak promised to protect the “precious green belt” from unwanted housing schemes, insisting he wanted new builds on brownfield sites, a pledge dismissed as “just rhetoric”.

Professor Paul Cheshire of the LSE said: “We already don’t build on the green belt. It’s a complete myth. 

"The area of green belt has hardly changed since 1973.”