Rishi Sunak lists Scottish nationalism among 'dangers' as election gets going

The SNP joined the threats of war, terror and authoritarianism referenced by the Prime Minister

Rishi Sunak has listed Scottish nationalism among the “dangers” faced by the UK during a speech in London.

It wasn’t the most dramatic of beginnings. But if you were to circle a box on the calendar and say, this was the start of the long general election campaign, then this might be it.

This wasn’t the day the election was called, of course.

A bit of mystery remains around that, although all the signs still point to polling day being in October or November – so the starting pistol might not be fired until after the summer holidays.

But you can still get the sense of something starting – not the B of the bang, but the athletes doing their first stretches of the day, putting the kettle on, stirring their pre-race porridge.

As one Conservative MP in the audience for Monday’s speech by the Prime Minister leaned over to say to me: “It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”

Rishi Sunak has attempted to shape the election narrative well before the campaign begins – before the narrative shapes the campaign for him. His election messages were sent out for a training run, and some of them were certainly eye-catching.

Despite being in government for 14 years, it’s actually the Tories that are the party of the future, the Prime Minister claimed. And in fairness to him, his speech was pretty futuristic: it was filled with the potential benefits of advanced technology and artificial intelligence, which Sunak said only his party was thinking about.

The Prime Minister suggested that pretty soon, every school pupil could have their own AI tutor. And he even dangled, in the vaguest terms, defeating cancer through science – but only if the Conservatives get another five years to put the economy into shape.

That was the hopeful bit – the Prime Minister contrasted that with Labour, which he claimed are trying to “depress their way to victory with all their talk of doom loops and gas lighting and scaremongering.”

But a lot of Sunak’s speech was downright scary, too.

“More will change in the next five years than in the last thirty,” he began.

“I’m convinced that the next few years will be some of the most dangerous yet the most transformational our country has ever known.”

He rattled through a list of growing threats: from war, terror and authoritarianism promoted by Russia, Iran, North Korea and China; through the destabilising impact of mass migration; to what he called “extremists” and “aggressive fringe groups” who promote anti-semitic and anti-Muslim views, and also include gender activists.

At the end of that long list was the speech’s primary nod to Scotland: “Scottish nationalists are even trying to tear our United Kingdom apart.”

The world is becoming too dangerous a place to change course in a general election, and put Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party into power, Sunak claimed. As evidence, he said Labour want to scrap the Rwanda deportation plan for people crossing the Channel to claim asylum, and haven’t committed to matching the Conservative plan to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP.

In his most memorable attack, Sunak accused the Labour leader of having no principles, referencing the controversial defection to Labour by a right-wing Conservative MP – “he’s gone from embracing Jeremy Corbyn to Natalie Elphicke, all in the cynical pursuit of power at any price”.

And if there was any doubt about his message, in the Q&A with journalists after the speech, the Prime Minister was asked if he meant the UK would be less safe under Sir Keir.

“Is it better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t?”

“In a word, yes.” You don’t get much clearer than that. The Prime Minister also threw in a challenge to debate Sir Keir on television during the campaign “as many times as he wants”.

Labour are comfortable dismissing the speech as “the seventh relaunch in 18 months”. And with the Conservatives trailing behind in the polls, and the gap to Labour nearly as big as it was under Liz Truss, this was as much about the Tories demanding the right to be heard, as actually taking the fight to the opposition.

But make no mistake, no matter how far behind he begins, this was Rishi Sunak starting the race. The months ahead will test the endurance of both politicians, and voters.

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