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by Kirsteen Paterson
05 June 2022
Hangover hell: After partygate, what next for the Scottish Conservatives?

Boris Johnson and Douglas Ross on the general election campaign trail in 2019

Hangover hell: After partygate, what next for the Scottish Conservatives?

'He has absolutely no influence on whether Johnson stays as PM or not'

No one likes a hangover, but partygate has left the Scottish Conservatives with a major headache. And Douglas Ross would be forgiven for reaching for the aspirin.

After a council elections slump and with troubling polls, the Tories both north and south of the border are trying to work out how to get their fizz back amidst continued public outcry about the “failures of leadership and judgement in No 10 and the Cabinet Office” laid bare by the Sue Gray report.

With pictures of the PM holding drinks aloft at gatherings in Downing Street throughout lockdown, WhatsApp exchanges between advisors suggesting “they may have got away with it”, and graphic mental images of vomiting staffers ill-treating cleaning staff in the hallowed halls of No 10, the public is not in the party mood. Almost 130 fixed penalty notices were handed out to more than 80 people in a separate £460,000 police investigation, with Johnson, his wife, and Rishi Sunak, amongst the recipients, and there remains a third inquiry by MPs on the Privileges Committee to go. That, Holyrood is told, is expected to begin within days, with members – four Conservative, two Labour, one SNP – required to determine whether to hold it in public, call witnesses in person, and sit across recess.

With the Prime Minister’s future still very much in doubt, it is the party leader in Scotland that has managed to box himself into an unenviable corner. Douglas Ross was amongst the first MPs to call for the Prime Minister to go as stories leaked out about “wine-time Fridays” and booze-filled suitcases being taken into government offices as Britons stayed away from funerals and friends. He won plaudits for showing some backbone even as Jacob Rees-Mogg hurled insults labelling him “a lightweight”. But any capital was soon spent when Ross withdrew the letter of no confidence he’d sent to the 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady amidst the war in Ukraine. Wartime is the wrong time for a leadership contest, he’d said, and now Sue Gray’s findings have been published in full, he’s sticking to it, saying the PM should stay until that conflict is over. Andrew Bridgen, the only other MP we know of to have withdrawn a letter of no confidence over partygate, has resubmitted his.

Ross’s line has the Scottish Tories talking, and as more MPs declare they’ve submitted letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister, there are questions over how long it can hold, when the partygate hangover will end and what the Conservatives will look like when it does.

The situation is “a complete fucking mess”, one Tory MSP told The Times, while others confided to Holyrood that they feel they are “finished” and there is “complete astonishment” about the position taken by Ross. That included pre-election denials that partygate would hurt – denials that rang hollow as soon as counting began and the full extent of the party’s losses became clear. “We could just see voters going back to Labour or the Lib Dems,” one party source said. 

The Tories shed around 60 seats in Scotland last month, and around 500 overall across the UK. It was the party’s worst performance in 15 years, in terms of councils controlled, diminishing its power and influence as well as sheer numbers. 

It could be worse; it could be a general election. Unfortunately for the party, the next has to be held by January 2025 and the current projections don’t look good. Work by YouGov found that Johnson would “likely” lose his own seat to a resurgent Labour if the contest was held tomorrow, shedding all but three of 88 “battleground” parliamentary seats. Separate polling by the website ConservativeHome revealed quite how damaged Johnson’s reputation is amongst party members, who rated him the least popular member of his own Cabinet, with a net approval rating of –15. Of all those figures covered by the poll, only two others were in negative numbers, and one of them was Ross, who came in at –1.3 just one month after polling 14.8.

Political rivals have leapt on those figures, with Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton describing Tory voters as “completely scunnered” by “the spinelessness of Douglas Ross” in defending the PM and calling the Conservative party “rotten from top to bottom”. Whether they’d describe themselves as ‘scunnered’ or not, there has been some public disquiet from Tory MSPs too about Johnson’s continued leadership. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has backed the PM, but twenty MSPs have said he should go, including Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy. Employment and fair work spokesperson Alexander Stewart has shared his “disappointment, disgust and dismay at the behaviour of Boris Johnson and all those involved”. Liz Smith, the well-respected finance spokesperson, has said there’s support for Ross, but “what people want resolved is the Boris issue because it is holding us back”. 

Others including Brian Whittle and Maurice Golden have issued similar sentiments, while ex-MP Peter Duncan told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland that he didn’t know how Ross could “navigate his way through the next period of time, particularly if we go into the next general election with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister”. And so, ex-Scottish Conservatives head of communications Andy Maciver says, there’s an opportunity to revisit the relationship between UK party and the Scottish party, something he sees as a source of “definite tension”. 

“We have people now within the MSP group backing Douglas but saying Boris should go. Douglas’s position is a very, very difficult one to take. It’s a very fine line that has a shelf life, and it’s fraught with difficulty. As time goes on, the tension will inevitably grow. Ultimately, all of this comes down, as it always does, to the relationship between the UK party and the Scottish party,” he says.

The current situation, he says, is “hugely costly, electorally”. “It’s inevitable that Labour overtake the Tories and get back into second place. Anas Sarwar is likelier than Douglas Ross to be first minister by exponential amounts,” Maciver says.

“At the council elections, nobody thought Douglas was asking them to vote for Boris Johnson,” he says. “There will be a big difference when the general election comes around because he’ll have to ask people to vote for someone he doesn’t think should be prime minister.”

“They seem to have got themselves into a bit of a mess,” says pollster Mark Diffley of the Scottish Tory response to partygate and Johnson, and while he has sympathies with Ross’s position, he says all the signals are pointing in the same direction. It’s “not a good look” to be part of an unsuccessful attempt to force a leadership election, he says, and attacks on Ross by senior Tories have been damaging. “People always accuse Labour and the Tories in Scotland of being ‘branch offices’ of UK-wide parties,” he says, “so that really is a bad look. 

“All the other main parties could point to something at the local elections where they were at least treading water, if not making gains. The Tory party was really the only one that stood out as doing quite badly. Their polls are continuing to decline – YouGov had them at below 20 per cent for Holyrood and Westminster – so there’s a downward trajectory.”

Labour moved ahead over December-February, he says, which is “a big deal”, and there’s a question over what action the Scottish Tories can take, short of “leaning into policy”. “To be fair to him, he must feel quite powerless,” Diffley says of Ross, adding that even before partygate, Johnson was “pretty toxic” in Scotland. “The Scottish Tories need this to be resolved quickly and to get Johnson out and forge a new relationship with a new prime minister,” he concludes. “He is a real drag on their party. They are becoming more irrelevant.

“Douglas Ross has tied himself to the future of the Prime Minister, but he is in a powerless position. He has absolutely no influence on whether Johnson stays as PM or not, and that’s the position he’s chosen to pick a fight on. The party is probably in the worst position it has been in since Ruth Davidson left.”

Now a member of the House of Lords, Davidson featured on campaign material for the council contest and has been more vocal on her opposition to the PM than she was in her time as Scottish party leader, during which she built it to an electoral high. Writing in the Evening Standard, Davidson accused Conservative colleagues of “sitting on their hands” and allowing Johnson to remain in post.

“The reason I have been so resolute and outspoken on this whole affair for months is because I believe in the institutions of our country,” she wrote. “That old-fashioned concepts like honesty, decency and transparency matter. That we should hold those granted huge powers over us to a higher standard, not a lower one. And that the great offices of state – like the office of prime minister – are more important than the individual holder of those offices at any given time. Especially if that person brings the office into disrepute.

“The goings-on in Downing Street at a time of national crisis were unforgiveable. And I do not doubt that those who lost so many and sacrificed so much will not forgive. Why Conservative MPs are sitting on their hands, I do not know.”

Former Attorney General Jeremy Wright and ex-minister Andrea Leadsom are amongst those to have shown their hands, with the former penning a 2000-word explanation of why he has submitted a letter of no confidence and the latter condemning “unacceptable failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated and are the responsibility of the PM”.

Dr Neil McGarvey, of Strathclyde University, says Ross’s “flip-flopping” on Johnson has done him and his party “no favours” and “revisiting how they can create more distance between themselves and Boris Johnson or the UK Government” would be a “very obvious medium-to-longer term strategy for the Scottish Conservative Party”. “Beyond the tentacles of London, there is nothing stopping a more autonomous, independent-minded Scottish leader from almost breaking free from those shackles,” he says. “They will remain attached to that party in the minds of the electorate unless they try to do something about it.

“It’s really a question of what type of unionism should be projected by the Scottish Conservatives: is it a unionism that ties them into the UK Conservative Party or finds space for a distinctiveness of approach? That’s what they have grappled with in the devolution era.”
If a leadership contest could provide a solution for the Scottish Conservatives, that can only come if the number of letters of no confidence reach 54. Despite speculation, the current total remains unconfirmed, but is climbing.

Sources told Holyrood this may rise again after Whitsun recess, after Tory MPs have spent more time in their constituencies assessing how important the issue is to their voters, and to their own positions.

The Privileges Committee enquiry, sources say, could take months unless members agree to fast-track proceedings by meeting multiple times per week and across summer recess. It has the power to summon MPs, potentially including Johnson, and could also call Gray in its work to determine whether or not the PM broke the ministerial code and knowingly misled parliament in his repeated denials of lockdown parties. The Sue Gray report is “fairly weak”, one well-placed source told Holyrood, and the committee’s findings are vital. “He came out of the report better than anyone expected,” the source said. 

If it finds that he did break the rules, the House will vote on whether to endorse its findings and any recommended sanctions, such as a temporary suspension. The recent changes to the ministerial code by Johnson have removed an unwritten convention that meant minister in breach of standards rules in a “minor” way had to leave office. While the prime minister’s ethics advisor can now launch an investigation into alleged infringements, a veto for the PM means such action must first be allowed by the head of government. 

The revisions have been condemned by opposition parties and indeed by Tory voices – ex-MSP Professor Adam Tomkins called it “corrupt and disgraceful” and a “betrayal of everything Conservatives are supposed to believe about our constitutional democracy”.

It’s another example of the disunity within Conservative and Unionist voices. Perhaps that explains why Sky News accidentally named Ross as the Scottish Labour Party leader in a recent broadcast. Andy Maciver says there is a danger of the Scottish Tories losing further support to Labour unless they find their way out of partygate. “As long as they are the Scottish Conservative Party, their number one calling will be defending the actions of the UK Conservative Party,” he stated. “Ever wondered why Scotland is the only country in Europe in which the centre right can’t get over 25 per cent? This is why. The choice is as simple as choices get. Be the first line of defence for the UK party, and guarantee permanent defeat at Holyrood. Or go your own way. And maybe win one day.”

Dr Alan Convery of Edinburgh University, who specialises in the Conservative Party, says adopting a Canadian-style approach, with a separate party at federal level, might only result in semantic difference. “It’s unlikely to be harmful to them, but is the upheaval worth it? In a multi-level system, you are going to find the main party in London is still at the centre. Is it going to result in a break that means you no longer have to defend the Conservatives at Westminster? Who is going to be secretary of state for Scotland, if not a member of the Scottish Conservatives?

“Even before partygate, Boris Johnson was a difficult proposition in Scotland and associated with a particular form of Brexit. He’s not been the most helpful prime minister for the Union and it would be better for the Scottish Conservatives if the leader was anybody else, but it’s always better to take a consistent position. Douglas Ross probably doesn’t have much choice but to try and draw as little attention as possible to it and see how things pan out.”

Read the most recent article written by Kirsteen Paterson - Broken record: What do House of Lords defeats say about the UK Government?

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