So, after the hot topics were dealt with and the table thumping and crockery smashing had stopped, what do you think Rishi Sunak and Nicola Sturgeon did for small talk in Inverness-shire during last week’s “private and informal dinner” – or what David Cameron doubtless still calls “a kitchen supper”? John Lydon’s chances of winning Eurovision for Ireland, perhaps? Why the best Doctor Who is a Scottish Doctor Who? How hard it is to get an appointment to see any sort of doctor these days, time-travelling or otherwise?

Mr Sunak may not have had much to say on that last matter. Not given his evasiveness when grilled by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last weekend about whether or not he goes to a private GP where, presumably, “You are number 27 in the queue” is not a phrase you hear much from the telephone booking system.

And what did the couple eat? Haggis, maybe, it being tolerably close to Burns Night. Something local, certainly. Whatever it was I hope it was Deliveroo’d direct to their table from Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, recently voted the best eatery in the UK.

It probably wasn’t toasted marshmallows. That treat was reserved for the Prime Minister’s visit to a Sea Scout troupe in Muirtown, where he was photographed around a bonfire not unlike the one on which his government intends to burn 4000 articles of European Union law covering (among other things) limits on air pollution, safeguards on water purity and restraints on the use of chemicals in food. It’s known as the Brexit Freedoms Bill, by the way, which at least proves that someone in the UK government has a sense of humour (hint: it’s not Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose baby this is).

I don’t imagine there was much chuckling around the table when FM and PM sat down to break bread, though. Hot topics sear the fingers and burn the mouth for a reason, and on the menu (potentially) in this first face-to-face meeting between the pair in Scotland were such tricky items as the UK government’s suspicion of the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill, the Scottish Government’s opposition to the UK government’s Strikes (Minimum Services Level) Bill, and – the tartan-clad elephant in the room – Ms Sturgeon’s desire to have Scotland leave the United Kingdom entirely, preferably by means of a second independence referendum. If not, she will treat the next general election as a “de facto” referendum on the matter. That’s Latin, so she must be serious.


Here’s that list again without the legalese and in plainer language, such as a Sea Scout or a Eurovision entrant will understand:

(1) The GRR makes changing gender less arduous. Mr Sunak is threatening to block it becoming law because, you know, “it’s a sensitive area” and “taking advice on the impact of that law” is “completely standard practice” blah blah. And no, it has nothing at all to do with placating his party’s extreme wing or riding Prada-shod over Holyrood’s democratic right to pass its own laws.

(2) Ms Sturgeon objects to the minimum services legislation because it’s essentially taking away the right to strike for certain key workers and – though I’m more Groucho than Karl where Marx is concerned – it seems to me this right is pretty fundamental to the whole capital-labour contract malarkey and has been for over 150 years (thank you, Chartists). Speaking at First Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, before she met Mr Sunak, Ms Sturgeon noted that the UK already has “the most anti-trade union laws in western Europe” and claimed the proposed bill “threatens to undermine and weaken the rights of workers even further.” She added: “We strongly oppose any bill that undermines legitimate trade union activity and does not respect fair work principles.”

(3) Well, there isn’t much to say about the second independence referendum. Those CalMac ferries will be in service before there’s any significant movement there. It long ago turned into a pantomime skit of the ‘Oh, no you won’t/Oh, yes we will’ variety’, with Ms Sturgeon as Cinderella, whoever runs the UK Supreme Court as the Fairy Godmother and Mrs May/Mr Johnson/Mrs Truss/Mr Sunak (delete where applicable) playing the wicked stepmother. Only in this panto, Cinders doesn’t get to go to the ball.

Of course, these kinds of leader-to-leader meetings are often tricky affairs so it’s no surprise if this one was too. What’s meant to be a cosy sit-down chat often turns into a stand-up spat. Or a PR disaster. Or both. Especially if there are microphones and photographers present, which there usually are.

Remember awkward Theresa May fake-smiling her way through a joint press conference with Donald Trump after he had criticised her handling of the Brexit and tipped Boris Johnson to be a great future Prime Minister? Remember Vladimir Putin’s bizarre, meme-tastic table, 20 feet of white birch wood with him at one end and a roster of embarrassed world leaders at the other, probably in a different time zone and definitely in a different postcode? French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz were two who endured Vlad’s trial-by-table shtick, though it made him look more ridiculous than them.

And I can’t walk through Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square without beaming spitefully as I recall Boris Johnson’s own visit to meet Ms Sturgeon at Bute House in 2019 when he was Prime Minister. The shambling, mendacious, Cincinnatus-loving Old Etonian was barracked by a hostile crowd and fared not much better on the steps of the building with an FM whose teeth were gritted and manner icy. So much for that famous Scottish hospitality. I’ve seen football referees get a warmer welcome. Even that Douglas Ross.

Predictably the offer of a meeting at the same venue this time was met with a ‘Nah, you’re alright’ by Sunak’s people. There’s probably a list pinned up in the Number 10 tea-room which says Do Not Under Any Circumstances Agree To Appear In Public With Nicola Sturgeon Anywhere In North Britain Unless Disguised As A Rescue Donkey Or George Clooney. Underlined and daubed with marker pen in ironic SNP yellow. And so a quiet tete-a-tete over dinner it was, with only a swift handshake in front of some truly awful wallpaper for the assembled photographers to prove it actually happened.

Then again, perhaps there is a nanoparticle of hope. Perhaps there is some chance of accord emerging from the cold, damp, unforgiving place that is a Rishi Sunak-Nicola Sturgeon pow-pow.

First up, he’s not Boris Johnson. That has to help, right? Second, there’s an outfit at Columbia University in New York – social psychologists, mostly – who run something called the Difficult Conversations Laboratory (DCL), so called because it’s where they apply psychology and science to, well, difficult conversations.

Basically, they put two people with conflicting views at a table in a windowless room and ask them to talk things over. I doubt they get to eat food from a Michelin star restaurant, but you never know. The important things is that the conversation is recorded, which allows it to be analysed.

What the DCL bods found is that through a process called ‘looping’ – continually parsing opposing beliefs and arguments – each participant could better understand the other’s opinions. They also discovered a magic ratio whereby if participants could find common ground on three things, the one they couldn’t agree on didn’t matter so much. This is called a ‘goodwill buffer’.

Now the First Minister and the Prime Minister kind of have it the wrong way round. They have three things they don’t agree on and only one they do – green freeports. In a post-prandial joint announcement, they revealed that the two winning Scottish bids to host these special economic zones will be established at sites on the Cromarty Firth and on the Firth of Forth, with the creation of an estimated 75,000 jobs.

But hey, even if the ratio is wrong, it’s a start, right. You never know, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Either way, it's always good to talk.