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by Kirsteen Paterson
16 June 2024
Summertime blues: How Douglas Ross and the Conservatives stole the general election spotlight

Douglas Ross is Scottish Conservative leader - for now | Alamy

Summertime blues: How Douglas Ross and the Conservatives stole the general election spotlight

“There seems to be a massive lack of political common sense, in many ways,” says Dr Jonathan Parker. “These are people who do this for a living and I don’t really understand how they are managing to bumble it so much.”

The University of Glasgow academic, who teaches UK politics, is talking about the Conservatives both north and south of the border. Because he can’t quite believe what he’s been seeing during this election campaign. 

First there was Rishi Sunak, drenched to the skin, announcing the election in a downpour outside Downing Street, then – after talking about bringing back national service – leaving D-Day commemorations for an ITV interview in which he implied a childhood without Sky TV allows him to relate to kids brough up in poverty and who have to do without. Then there was Douglas Ross replacing David Duguid as candidate for Aberdeenshire North and Moray East hours before the deadline due to the latter’s ill-health, only for Duguid to turn around and deny being too unwell for the job.

The row triggered a leak from within the Tory party of claims that Douglas Ross had used his MP expense account to cover costs for his football work. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has now said it is "satisfied" Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has not broken expenses rules. But in the furore that followed the initial report, Ross became the first UK political leader to announce he’ll quit during an election campaign. Bookies are offering odds on who will succeed him while simultaneously taking punts on whether or not he’ll win his target seat. And after saying he’ll quit as an MSP if returned as an MP, the woman who was next on the list so would therefore take Ross’s Holyrood seat has said she won’t move back from London to take up the opportunity – and the next candidate on the list is on honeymoon and still to comment.

It is not how I planned the campaign

“I am sorry, this has not been good enough. It is not how I planned the campaign,” Ross said in an apology to Tory voters. “I didn’t expected to be announcing that I would be standing down during the middle of the campaign.”

In an election in which the result – a Labour landslide, a Tory wash-out, an SNP decline – seems to be a foregone conclusion, it is this ‘bumbling’ which has become the talking point.

And while there’s been a fair bit of it to go round – Keir Starmer flip-flopping over whether GB Energy will produce power or just invest in it; John Swinney and Kate Forbes appearing in a party political broadcast with all the panache of Reverend IM Jolly; a lifejacket-wearing Ed Davey falling off a tightrope on a watery assault course – it is the Conservative party which has truly stolen the sideshow. Even while defending his expense history during a campaign stop in Edinburgh, Ross was interrupted by a rubbish truck collecting from a big blue bin in a moment that provided the most obvious of visual metaphors. “A lot of things have been driven by gaffes, especially for the Conservatives,” says Parker of the campaign so far. 

“Douglas Ross has a very minimal chance of a frontline career after this. Looking at his influence in parliament and Holyrood over the past two years, it’s possibly not a bad thing for the tenor of Scottish politics overall. I don’t think he has been a very good influence; there are possibly more constructive politicians.

“It’s really shocking, the lack of political instinct that he has shown over the past week or so, as has been the case with the UK Conservative leadership as well. People often compare this campaign to ‘97 [the year the Labour landside all but wiped-out John Major’s Tories] but the thing about that was the Conservatives did better at the end – they narrowed the polls a bit – but it seems to be the opposite in this case.”

Indeed, Sunak’s chances of salvaging Tory pride seem as slim as his poll ratings are low. The party is predicted to suffer deep losses and, across the UK, is trailing Labour on voting intention by some distance. Meanwhile, right-wing rival Reform, now headed once again by Brexit architect Nigel Farage, has announced a full set of candidates and narrowed the gap with the Conservatives to just one point. Farage’s entry to the race was another dramatic moment, coming as it did after he’d said he would sit this one out to focus on the US election in November. Suggestions that the contest would go full soap opera came to nothing when speculation that ex-Neighbours star Holly Valance would run for Reform went unfulfilled.

In an Ipsos poll released last week, Reform was polling four per cent in Scotland – higher than Alba’s one per cent and the Scottish Greens’ three per cent, and just short of the five per cent shown for the Lib Dems. The SNP and Labour were neck-and-neck at 36 per cent, with the Tories on 13 per cent. But what was perhaps most interesting was the fact that 42 per cent of those surveyed indicated that their voting intention was not yet set in stone. 

Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos in Scotland, called this group “the persuadables” and said data suggests Labour is best placed to pick up their votes. Ipsos found a Conservative vote looking “soft”, with 55 per cent of potential Tory voters saying they might change their mind. “Those voters would be most likely to switch to Labour,” Gray said, and “given the profile of marginal seats in Scotland, even small changes in vote share… can make a big difference to the final result.”

It's a strange election

All of this chimes with Parker’s own analysis. And he says Labour’s positioning in this election could be adding not only to the chances of swing voters, but also to future problems for the party in government. Keir Starmer’s party is taking a message of change to voters and has moved increasingly to the centre ground since he became leader. Pledges to scrap Universal Credit and nationalise public utilities have been changed themselves as Labour has sought to appeal to Conservative voters by promising to cut net immigration and U-turning on a previous vow to end the two-child benefit limit. “We don’t detect in polling a massive enthusiasm for the Labour Party,” Parker says.

“The two incumbent governments [in Westminster and Holyrood] have been quite considerably tarnished and Labour is evolving as an alternative place for people to put their votes, but it could be a long-term strategy mistake that they present themselves as really very, very centrist. There’s a chance they could run out of steam when it comes to governing, that they don’t build up a weight of genuine enthusiasm behind them, then after almost two years of power at Westminster they are perhaps not going to be in as amazing a position to take the leading role from the SNP [in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2026].”

The lack of distinction between reserved, devolved, and local matters has been a feature of Scottish elections for several cycles, and issues under the purview of the Scottish Parliament dominated the five-way BBC Scotland Debate Night Leaders’ Special at which First Minister John Swinney had to defend the SNP government record on health, education and more. A previous debate on STV was similar.

Both were held in Glasgow and on the streets of Scotland’s biggest city people variously told Holyrood they were worried about potholes, refuse collection and bus passes as well as scrapping the Rwanda plan, tackling child poverty, boosting the economy, cutting energy bills, and advancing Scottish independence. “It’s very interesting this election, in particular, how much people are conflating issues which are reserved, devolved and local,” Parker says. 

“Scotland has got into this position where the Scottish and Westminster elections are viewed by a lot of people as of equal importance and they don’t distinguish between them too much. The voting behavior doesn’t necessarily differentiate too much between them. It’s a strange election because it’s both people voting on Westminster issues, but it’s also a midterm for the SNP, a midterm for the Scottish Parliament, and people [are] voting on how they think the SNP government at Holyrood is doing.”

If there’s a word to describe the nature of Scottish politics over the past cycles, it’s “volatile”, Parker says. And indeed, many seats have swung back and forward between parties several times. Majorities in some constituencies are thin enough to see through.

But whichever party comes out with the most Scottish seats, it will not be the Conservatives, whose vote appears to be collapsing. It will be for the next leader, post-Ross, to attempt to rebuild, repair the relationship with voters, and ensure the party is a serious political actor, not a bit player.

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Read the most recent article written by Kirsteen Paterson - SNP puts pressure on Labour over two-child benefit cap in King's Speech vow.

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