Douglas Ross. Ken Jack/Getty Images

Young man in a hurry

Is Douglas Ross ready to lead the Scottish Conservatives?

Artillery Row

Truly, a week is a long time in politics. Last Friday, Jackson Carlaw resigned as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. And here we are the following Wednesday with the leadership battle to succeed him stitched-up/resolved. The winner, with no votes cast, is Douglas Ross.

Critics may scoff that there was never an embarrassment of riches to choose from so there was no point dragging this Tory version of speed-dating into an agonised courtship. Ross had the backing of everyone who mattered, including Carlaw and Ruth Davidson and – despite his having resigned as a junior minister of state at the Scottish Office over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown road trip– clearly is acceptable to Downing Street. As Winston Churchill once said, when asked why he had approved William Temple as Archbishop of Canterbury – because he was “the only half-crown article in a sixpenny bazaar.”

Only six months ago, when the Scottish Conservatives last elected a leader, scarcely anyone was talking-up Ross’s claim. So it is not clear what in the intervening half-year – apart from resigning from the only government office he has ever held – the MP for Moray has done to make himself the shoe-in now. Except, of course, that his resignation is being portrayed as a point in his favour, given the unpopularity of Boris Johnson and his adviser in Scotland, and the desire for unionists to distance themselves from Downing Street.

Back in February, Carlaw’s victory was not quite a case of Buggins’ turn, but there was a sense that the former car salesman had been a loyal and trusted servant of the party for forty years and that this was a just reward. Even with this prevailing sentimentality, there was a view that it would be better if he was blooded in a leadership campaign, hence Michelle Ballantyne was encouraged to stand against him.

In the event, Carlaw won three-quarters of the votes. But an electorate consisting only of the Scottish Conservative party membership is hardly the widest of franchises or the toughest of gigs. Scottish Tory members are mostly well-mannered types, a hustings with them is not the equivalent of playing the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night. In total, only 6,498 individuals returned their ballot papers.

So this time the party has cut out the kerfuffle and gone straight for an anointment, with Ross excused from being put through his paces in a leadership contest at a time when even village halls cannot be booked. Even still, the speed with which the party has acted to minimise the risk of any alternative nuisance-maker getting their nominations together, is remarkable.

Ross is young (thirty-seven), discernibly Scottish in accent and tone, locally schooled (in Forres, which is within his north-east of Scotland constituency), laboured in a dairy farm before becoming (briefly) an MSP at Holyrood before in 2017 scalping the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson. The SNP have since run a long campaign to paint him as a part-time MP because he has sought to continue refereeing football matches at the weekend. Voters often do not appreciate their representatives having second jobs, but many will think refereeing the occasional football match is a sign that Ross is well-adjusted, rather than a moonlighter. As the wags have pointed out, what could be better preparation for leading the Scottish Tories than being constantly shouted at and never bbeing allowed a shot at goal?

what could be better preparation for leading the Scottish Tories than being constantly shouted at and never being allowed a shot at goal?

Robertson – who has his own leadership ambitions – reacted to Ross’s emergence as the Tories’ preferred leader with an uncharacteristically personal and aggressive take-down of his vanquisher in Moray for the SNP-supporting newspaper, The National. “I have known Douglas Ross for a long time,” wrote Robertson, “first coming across him at the 2001 Westminster General Election campaign in Moray when he was a precocious Liberal Democrat activist” and whilst the Conservatives now claim Ross is well liked this is “untrue. It wasn’t true among his Moray Council colleagues, among Scottish Parliament colleagues and even at Westminster.”

Popular or not, Ross has proved outspoken, being widely condemned for calling for tougher enforcement against “Gypsy Travellers” as he called them. Although he voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he quickly accepted the result and the need to implement it. He voted against Theresa May’s first meaningful vote (missed the second vote in order to be with his policewoman wife at the birth of their first child) before crumbling and – alongside the current prime minister – voting with the government on the third attempt to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. Quixotically, he backed Mark Harper for leader, before switch to Johnson.

Now he finds himself in the sub-optimal situation of being leader of a party whose primary stage is at Holyrood whilst he continues the long distance commute to Westminster. Ruth Davidson will therefore do the honours at the Scottish Parliament until May when the Holyrood elections will see her standing down and Ross (he reasonably calculates) being elected on the regional list for the Highlands and Islands.

Scotland’s media naturally focus on Holyrood and interactions that involve the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. If the Scottish Tory response is accorded so much as a soundbite, it will therefore likely be spoken by Ruth Davidson. Ross will therefore struggle to get the attention he needs, whilst his party faces a crucial election in which Davidson will be to the fore but not actually putting herself before the voters.

This is such a handicap that it begs the question, “in their speed to change leaders, have the Tories thought this through?” The reality is that they have. And such is their predicament that none of the alternatives seemed better.

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