Assistant referee and leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Douglas Ross. (Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Scottish Conservatives – what is the plan?

Douglas Ross is proving a better critic of Boris Johnson than of Nicola Sturgeon

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives’ leader, would have wished today’s Scottish news headlines to lead with his threat of legal action to force Nicola Sturgeon’s government to place key documents before the Alex Salmond inquiry. This comes after the Scottish government refused demands by MSPs that it do so. Instead, Ross finds himself contending with the news that with six months to go before the crunch Holyrood elections, the Scottish Conservatives are one MSP down. Michelle Ballantyne has decided she is no longer “a good fit” with the Conservatives. The South Scotland regional list MSP will see out the rest of her term until May as an independent.

It is an abrupt disenchantment given that, as recently as February, Ballantyne was campaigning to become the Scottish Conservatives’ leader. Back then, she was comfortably beaten by Jackson Carlaw who promptly dropped her as the party’s social security spokesperson. When, in July, Carlaw’s scarce six months as clan laird came to its abrupt end, Ballantyne condemned the coup against him, foreseeing “another stitch up where somebody gets foisted on us.” Just to maintain a sense of balance, she also shared her estimation of Carlaw that “I’m happy he’s gone.”

In her letter of resignation, she cites Ross’s address to the party conference last weekend that “there are differences arising for some in the party’s positioning on policy and, indeed, its principles. Sadly, for me, this means I no longer feel that the party and I are a good fit.”

Ross’s speech to conference (delivered, in these socially distanced times, virtually – although not necessarily to a larger audience as a result) actually said very little about either policy or principles. It started with a predictably vigorous defence of the union, but with a twist. “Across England, there are those that see Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as poor investments, recipients rather than contributors to the welfare of our country” Ross told his autocue, “and who want to see a UK Government that is focused on England and minimises its responsibilities to our other three nations.” Who was he talking about, a notional little Englander on the Clapham omnibus? Fellow Tory MPs? Not the prime minister, surely? Ross’s phraseology was teasingly ambigious, “I take no pleasure in saying this,” he went on, “but the case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh.”

The point that Ross was labouring to develop was that too many people outside Scotland take the SNP at its own estimation, and have begun to think Scottish independence inevitable. Yet, the impression he conveyed was that the unionist cause would be a lot easier to make but for no-nothing English prats, by implication some of them in his party. Certainly, his challenge that “it is time for the whole Conservative Party to rediscover its Unionism and get behind us” left the listener with the distinct impression all was not well within the greater Conservative family. Whilst the prime minister name checked “my friend, Douglas Ross” in his virtual message to the conference, Ross pointedly did not find space to mention Boris Johnson in his oration.

Ross was, of course, furious about the prime minister’s leaked asides to northern Tory MPs that devolution had been a “disaster.” Like Carlaw before him, Ross must contend with the reality that Johnson’s appeal does not run much beyond the north bank of the Tweed and that this appears to be something approaching a settled will of the Scottish people.

But nothing Ross has done since becoming leader has been especially impactful and the whipping of Scottish Conservative MSPs to back the SNP government’s enhanced lockdown measures last Thursday was controversial. These after all, were draconian measures that included closing the border between Scotland and England, something which it is not even clear Nicola Sturgeon enjoys the power to enact – as Adam Tomkins pointed out (before reluctantly voting for it).

Sturgeon is untouchable on Covid, so the Tories are attacking her on the Salmond inquiry.

Scottish Labour’s leader, Richard Leonard, rallied his MSPs against Sturgeon’s travel ban which was, Leonard warned, “nonsense and the government knows it”. But efforts to unite the opposition parties faltered because of the Scottish Conservatives’ support for the prohibitions.

What is the thinking of Ross and Ruth Davidson (who is caretaker Tory spokesperson in Holyrood until Ross makes the transition from Westminster) in this respect? How is it any different from the mild-mannered approach that lost Jackson Carlaw his leadership of the party?

The thinking appears to be that Sturgeon is untouchable on Covid, so the Tories should try and attack her on the Salmond inquiry. But the problem with this approach should be obvious – most Scots care a lot more about Covid and the effect of the measures imposed to combat it, than they do about who said what to whom on exactly which date as relayed in a Holyrood committee room.

How, indeed, is the notion that the first minister is the sublime fusion of Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale and Eva Peron to be challenged if the Scottish Conservatives keep endorsing every measure she proposes, no matter how extreme? Adam Tomkins, the most intellectually accomplished MSP in the Scottish Conservatives’ ranks, has had enough and is standing down in May, as, of course, is Ruth Davidson. Last Thursday, Oliver Mundell defied his party whip and voted against the travel ban measures. In doing so, he resigned as a Tory frontbench spokesman. Only one other Tory MSP did likewise. And, as of today, she is no longer a Tory MSP. Not all of Douglas Ross’s problems are made in England.

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