AS I WRITE, 27 out of 31 Scottish MSPs have followed their leader Douglas Ross in calling for the Prime Minister to resign over partygate. Four have yet to declare directly, but sources inside the Scottish Conservatives insist they are all behind Ross.
This Scottish Tory rebellion is a watershed moment and marks an unprecedented break not just with the current Westminster government but with the UK Conservative Party. It’s been brewing for a long time, visible not just in Ruth Davidson’s antipathy towards Brexit and Boris Johnson personally, but in the Remainer, anti-Johnson sympathies of the majority of Conservative MSPs and the party hierarchy at Northumberland Street.
The furore about parties at Downing Street triggered the rebellion, of course, but it would not have happened without a leader who had already shown himself prepared to break with his government on lockdown principle: in May 2020 Douglas Ross was the only minister to resign in protest at the Prime Minister’s support for his advisor Dominic Cummings in the face of national outrage at his alleged breaching of lockdown rules. As Alex Massie puts it, Ross is “a cussed, stubborn, sort. The kind of fellow who follows his argument to its logical destination.”
As ever, though, electoral self-interest is close at hand. Boris is manna from heaven for the SNP, an ideal recruiting sergeant second only to a reincarnation of Mrs Thatcher. I haven’t seen the party’s private polling, but I can’t imagine it makes for happy reading; fears have been expressed that its councillors are facing a wipe-out at May’s local government elections (although unlikely because of the STV PR system).
The problem isn’t just Boris, but that the whole Conservative brand in Scotland remains semi-toxic. While Ruth Davidson made some (in retrospect perhaps over-egged) inroads on this front, Ross has so far lacked the charisma to continue that aspect of her project. Calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation won’t recuperate the Tories’ image in Scotland. I can’t think of anyone who would now be tempted to vote Scottish Conservative because of Ross’s call (but I see plenty of presumably Scottish Conservative voters on social media outraged by his disloyalty and misplaced fervour in attacking his own leader instead of Nicola Sturgeon).
Indeed, Ross’s call makes the position of the Scottish Conservative Party appear more precarious than ever. There is no chance that Johnson will resign just because Scottish Conservatives call for him to do so – and very little chance that he will resign for any other reason. His ministers have fallen in line behind him, and Johnson’s modus operandi is to ride out the storm. Consequently, Ross’s action has merely underlined just how ineffectual – indeed irrelevant – the Scottish party has become. Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg hammered this point home last night; when asked about Ross Gove said: “my instant response is he’s in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London”. Rees-Mogg told LBC: “Douglas Ross has always been quite a lightweight figure”.
At Commons business questions this morning, SNP MP Pete Wishart wasted no time in using this remark to make the obvious nationalist point:
“According to [Jacob Rees-Mogg], the democratically elected Scottish Tory leader is an insignificant figure, a lightweight, a nobody – presumably just like every single Tory MSP who agree with their Scottish leader … The Scottish Tories are supposed to be the Praetorian guard of the precious Union, and the Leader of the House has just undermined them, thrown them under the proverbial bus … If this is how the Government even treats the Scottish Tories, why should the Scottish people entertain being a part of their useless union?”
What is the point of the Scottish Conservatives? In the wake of this contretemps, not only nationalists will be asking, though the question has been obvious for a long time given the electoral impossibility of a Tory victory at Holyrood and their lacklustre performance in holding an SNP government to account despite it being well past its sell-by-date.
In August 2019, following Ruth Davidson’s resignation as leader, in part because of differences with Boris Johnson and the consequential loss of influence over the PM, The Times reported that the Scottish Conservative party was actively considering whether to split from the UK party: it was “likely an internal commission will consider four options under its new remit: maintaining the status quo; changing the name of the party to distance it but keeping broadly the same links; setting up a Bavarian-style system in which two separate parties have a coalition agreement at Westminster; and an arrangement similar to that used by parties in Quebec, meaning that one would stand for the Scottish parliament and the other for the Commons”.
It is no coincidence that Davidson looks like she egged on Ross to call for Johnson’s resignation – she first called for it on January 4, and laid the groundwork for Ross in her blistering denunciation of Johnson’s “indefensible” partying on BBC News on Tuesday. Wednesday morning’s Courier carried an extraordinary piece by Davidson’s former head of media Adam Morris insisting Ross must tell Johnson to go. He described partygate as “just the latest predicament facing Tories in Scotland caused by their supposed allies in England” before claiming:
“Almost every scandal we had to deal with in the press office during Ruth Davidson’s leadership was sparked by the party down south. We were routinely forced to defend the illogical bedroom tax, the mind-bogglingly stupid two-child cap which triggered the rape clause debate, and all the consequences of the Brexit vote.”
It’s impossible to miss the frustration and bitterness Morris expresses on behalf of Scottish Tories, or the tease in this sentence:
“The Scottish Conservatives have a very thin course to navigate now, and all this has emboldened those who think the party should formally divorce from Westminster”.
His former employer may still be warning against the “electoral suicide” of splitting the UK and Scottish parties, but this question is now more urgent than at any time since Murdo Fraser stood against Davidson in the 2011 leadership election on a platform to create a new independent centre-right party. Indeed, prominent Scottish Conservatives – former MP and party chairman Peter Duncan, former MSP Adam Tomkins and Andy Mciver (another former Scottish Tory press secretary) – have all written influential pieces since the New Year advocating for a split.
I have written repeatedly about the self-defeating positions Scottish Conservatives find themselves in and the consequent need for a new Scottish centre-right party. The question now, I suppose, is whether Douglas Ross possesses the courage and leadership to be “the kind of fellow who follows his argument to its logical destination”.
Now in our sixteenth year, ThinkScotland is not for profit (it makes a loss) and relies on donations to keep publishing our wide range of opinions and writing – You can help support ThinkScotland by making a donation here.