Lucky 13: The Scottish Tory MPs holding the government together

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 28 February 2018 in Inside Politics

Mark McLaughlin takes a look at the new group of Scottish Conservatives MPs

There was a well-worn joke during the Conservatives’ Caledonian wilderness years that there were more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland.

The stubbornly childless Yang Guang and Tian Tian, Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas, are going to have to start getting it on big time to make that interminable pun relevant again after the Tories won 13 seats at the snap general election last year.

The Scottish turnaround was seen as the silver lining in the ominous cloud cast by Theresa May’s cack-handed effort to finish off an apparently crippled Labour Party, and the results north and south of the border demonstrated that the electorate do not like being taken for granted.

Jeremy Corbyn was widely dismissed as “unelectable” until he increased Labour’s vote share by nearly 10 per cent and wiped out the Tory majority with 30 new MPs.

Meanwhile, during the independence referendum campaign, Scots were persistently told that things were different north of the border. Scotland didn’t vote Tory and yet it regularly ends up with Tory governments, it was claimed.

Today, Scotland’s 13 Tory MPs are part of the glue holding the increasingly fractious Conservative government together – although they have yet to demonstrate that they can wield their influence en masse to carve out a distinctive identity as May tries to feign a semblance of common purpose and direction on the wayward road out of the European Union.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell, the elder statesman of the Scottish Conservatives and the only one with a ministerial post, was left red-faced when his promised amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, to assuage widespread cross-party concerns about a “power grab” of devolved competences, failed to materialise during the Commons stage of deliberations.

It was the first major test of the Scottish Conservatives’ pledge to stand up for Scotland, and they were predictably dismissed as “lobby fodder” by Nicola Sturgeon when they forthrightly expressed their disappointment at the devolution fudge before meekly voting with the government to allow the bill to progress to the Lords.

Mundell is immune to such nationalist jibes, as a veteran of the first sessions of the Scottish Parliament, and then the Tories’ lone Scottish sentry at Westminster between 2005 to 2017.

He narrowly weathered the SNP landslide in 2015 and was rewarded with a promotion from Scotland Office Minister to a cabinet post, after David Cameron’s majority allowed him to dispense with his former Liberal Democrat coalition partners and with it their Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael.

In January 2016 he publicly revealed that he is gay, marking another milestone in the reform of the once austere Conservative Party as the first openly gay cabinet secretary in a party which had elected lesbian Ruth Davidson as its Scottish leader five years earlier.

Mundell went on to gain a very respectable 49.4 per cent of the vote in 2017, falling just short of a five-figure majority as the nationalist backlash took hold in Scotland’s borderlands.

The belt of blue that straddles the English border after the 2017 election is completed by John Lamont, Alister Jack and Bill Grant.

Lamont, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, has long been regarded amongst the Scottish Conservative A team since he took the broadly co-terminus Holyrood seat from the Lib Dems in 2007 and consistently increased his vote share in subsequent elections.

He ran Davidson’s leadership campaign in 2011 and trounced SNP minister Paul Wheelhouse for the second time in 2016 with a comfortable 7,736 majority. Wheelhouse continues to serve in the Scottish Government as a list MSP.

The farmer’s son and former solicitor now sits on the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, and has been outspoken on Sturgeon’s attempts to differentiate his constituents from their Northumbrian neighbours, accusing her of trying to “weaponise” Brexit by turning the border tangle in Ireland to her nationalist advantage.

The SNP accused him of “shameless” hypocrisy in November when it was revealed he received a £2,000 donation from climate change sceptic Neil Record, just weeks before Davidson was due to address the Scottish Green Energy Awards.

Alister Jack, MP for Dumfries and Galloway, is a self-made millionaire who built up his Aardvark and Armadillo self-storage firms in the UK and Europe before selling up a decade ago. The 53-year-old farmer built his general election pitch on building trade links across the border with Carlisle, winning a 5,643 majority in one of the most fickle constituencies in Scotland.

He further cemented his unionist credentials by complaining to the BBC for “pandering to a separatist agenda” by screening local performances of ‘Loch Lomond’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in its broadcast of the Proms finale, instead of ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Jerusalem’ performed in London.

As a member of the Commons Treasury Committee, Jack has been at the forefront of scrutinising claims that RBS’s business support unit GRG crippled companies that it was supposed to save.

Bill Grant made his name as “the nicest wee cooncillor in Ayr” and was about to hang-up his Tory rosette for good at the age of 65 after a double heart bypass, until he was asked to take a punt on the apparently outside chance of overturning SNP MP Corri Wilson’s 11,265 majority in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The “eternal optimist”, who had a 31-year career in the fire brigade and was a Justice of the Peace for 10 years, won the seat with a 2,774 majority.

As well as staking a claim to be the “defenders of the Union” with its band of blue at the border, the pro-Brexit Tories also carved out a new stronghold in the North East where the Remain vote was softest, particularly in the rural and coastal regions of Moray, Aberdeenshire and Angus where EU initiatives like the Common Fisheries Policy remain unpopular.

Colin Clark claimed the biggest scalp by ending Alex Salmond’s two decades of dominance in the North East, latterly in Gordon where Clark won over almost four times as many voters as he did in 2015 and knocked Salmond into second place with a 2,607 majority.

He watched with glee as Salmond moved from politics to Pravda with his RT television show, insisting, “I’m sure he won’t actually defect – like his supporters did from the SNP to the Conservatives this year”.

David Duguid took Salmond’s former stomping ground of Banff & Buchan from the former First Minister’s successor Eilidh Whiteford in 2017.

The oil and gas management consultant fought his campaign on the twin issues of fishing and Brexit, following research by the University of East Anglia which suggested there may actually have been a majority for Brexit in the area when the results are analysed by Westminster constituency rather than council.

Since then he has been outspoken on both, rejecting the Tory leadership’s proposals for a two-year transition deal in favour of a “nine month bridging period that will see the UK take its seat at the 2019 end of year fisheries negotiations as an independent coastal state”.

Andrew Bowie took Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine from the SNP with a respectable majority of 7,950.

The former Royal Navy officer and parliamentary aide to Tory MSP Liam Kerr was forced to apologise to an SNP councillor in the run-up to the election after inadvertently sending her an email branding her a “flipping woman”.

The Remain voting MP has been named as a contributor to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, widely believed to be the Eurosceptic faction pressing May for a hard Brexit, but Bowie insists it’s “just a forum where people have been talking about Brexit”.

Kirstene Hair took Angus from the SNP with a majority of 2,644. The former DC Thomson executive assistant admitted she abstained in the Brexit referendum, insisting the decision was “incredibly difficult” and therefore one to leave to everyone else.

Since her election, she hasn’t been so equivocal on the driving force behind the referendum, insisting curbs on immigration will lead to staff cuts and massive price increases in the large soft fruit sector in her constituency.

The Conservatives have always done relatively well in Mid-Scotland, even during the lean years of devolution when they secured the biggest vote share in the list behind South Scotland and North East Scotland.

Stirling was the stronghold of Michael Forsyth, the last Tory Scottish Secretary of the pre-devolution era, before falling to Labour and briefly flirting with the SNP until devoted Mormon Stephen Kerr picked up the Tory baton again in 2017.

Kerr blasted the Tory leadership for “dropping the ball” on the “unsatisfactory” Brexit bill, leaving it to “unelected Lords” to debate the future of devolution under Brexit.

The neighbouring constituency, Ochil and South Perthshire, was won by former retail accountant Luke Graham, who took the seat from prominent Salmond ally Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. He only became active in politics during the independence referendum, and has remained strong on constitutional issues, expressing his “frustration” at the Brexit bill and rejecting the SNP’s ongoing manoeuvring for a second independence referendum.


Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire

Paul Masterton has become one of the most prominent MPs in the new Scottish Tory batch – but for reasons that probably won’t please the Prime Minister.

The former George Watson’s boy took East Renfrewshire from the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald in 2017, inheriting one of the most staunchly Europhile constituencies in Scotland.

It has forced him to take an outspoken independent stance on Brexit, and seen him marked out as one of the “mutineers” accused of trying to derail Theresa May’s Brexit plans.

“I am not and have never been a Brexiteer,” he told HuffPost UK.

“To me, respecting the will of the people isn’t about happy-clappy cheering like a seal every time someone says we’re leaving the European Union, it’s about recognising that yes, we are leaving, but how are we going to do it.”

He has backed rebel ringleader Stephen Hammond’s bid to secure a soft Brexit through joining tiny trading block EFTA, describing it as a “safe harbour” until future trade deals are finalised.


Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South

Arch-Brexiteer Ross Thomson had been a Tory stalwart for over a decade until he won a seat on the Holyrood North East Scotland list in 2016 and upgraded to the Westminster constituency of Aberdeen South in 2017.

He was a prominent member of Vote Leave in the EU referendum, turning his back on Ruth Davidson’s defence of the European Union which was backed by the majority of her MSPs.

He is a member of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, which he describes as a group united by the objective of ensuring May does not waver from the hard Brexit course she set out in her Lancaster House speech. His Euroscepticism is rooted in his close links to the fishing and farming industries in the North East.

The MP is an outspoken supporter of LGBTI rights, and has also recently launched a campaign at Westminster to follow Holyrood’s lead and ban “barbaric” electric shock dog collars.


Member of Parliament for Moray

Douglas Ross handed his opponents an open goal when he missed a vote on the emotive issue of welfare reform to be an assistant referee at a Champions League match.

The nationalists were desperate for retribution after he claimed one of their biggest scalps, former Westminster leader Angus Robertson, in the Moray stronghold they had held since the days of Margaret Ewing in 1987.

Accusations that he was a “part-time politician” inevitably followed, and he pledged to reject any further offers to referee while parliament is sitting.

However, he later committed another clear foul when he said he would “like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”, prompting a rebuke from Amnesty International and a disciplinary warning by his employers at the Scottish Football Association.

Far from being a part-time politician, he had been a councillor since 2007 and stood for nearly every parliamentary election since then until he won a seat on the Highlands and Islands Holyrood list in 2016 before taking the ultimate Westminster prize.


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