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by Chris Marshall
17 January 2022
End of the party: Where now for the Scottish Tories?

End of the party: Where now for the Scottish Tories?

Growing up in the south side of Glasgow in the 1980s, it was hard to imagine a time when people wouldn’t routinely vote for the Tories.

The Eastwood constituency, renamed East Renfrewshire in 2005, was the party’s safest seat in Scotland, despite lying just a few short miles from some of the country’s poorest communities where the impact of Thatcherism was doing its insidious worst.

Between 1979 and 1997 Eastwood was held by Allan Stewart, a graduate of St Andrews and Harvard and a former lecturer in political economy, who was forced to resign as a Scotland Office minister in 1995 after waving a pickaxe at a bunch of protesters attempting to block the construction of the M77 motorway.

When Tony Blair recorded a landslide victory two years later, ending 18 years of Tory rule, future Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy won the seat and held it until 2015 when its current incumbent, Kirsten Oswald, took it for the SNP – a result which would have been unthinkable in the decades before.

By the late 1990s, the Conservatives were in real trouble across Scotland, losing every seat at the ’97 election, including those of big-hitters such as Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind. The party felt out of touch, irrelevant, moribund. 

Yet despite initially being lukewarm on the idea of a Scottish Parliament, the advent of devolution and the ongoing constitutional debate has slowly reanimated the party, giving it a renewed sense of purpose and lifting it out of its late 90s doldrums.

Under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories somehow managed to achieve the difficult balancing act of remaining within the ambit of the UK party while simultaneously carving out its own identity.

Then Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.

For many Scots, you’d have to go back to Thatcher to find a more unpopular leader. The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is such an electoral liability north of the border that he wisely stayed away altogether during the Holyrood election campaign last year.

But if Johnson’s unpopularity could once be ignored, the latest revelations about him flouting lockdown restrictions now threaten to undo much of the rebuilding that has taken place under Ruth Davidson and current Holyrood leader Douglas Ross.

Margaret Thatcher pictured with then Rangers manager Graeme Souness on a trip to Glasgow, 1990 | Picture: Alamy

Last week, with opinion polls showing as many as two-thirds of Scots supported the Prime Minister’s departure, Ross had finally had enough. After a 15-minute phone call with Johnson in which the Prime Minister was unable to guarantee that further damaging allegations would not emerge in the days and weeks ahead, the Scottish Tory leader called for his resignation.

Under huge pressure following the leaking of an email inviting staff to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” at the height of lockdown in May 2020, Johnson had told MPs earlier that day that he had spent 25 minutes at the party but had “believed implicitly this was a work event”.

“By staying inside the Conservative Party, what the Scottish centre right is doing is consigning itself to perpetual defeat

Despite attempts to distance themselves, polling published after Christmas showed the ongoing controversy about Downing Street parties was beginning to hurt the Scottish Conservatives. According to a survey by Opinium for the Sunday Mail, the party is again in danger of being wiped out in Scotland at the next general election.

Andy Maciver, a political strategist and former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives, says it’s time the party at Holyrood made a definite break with Westminster by changing its name and forging its own path.

“I think what Douglas has been saying is in many ways quite admirable and I think he’s been much stronger on Boris and on the UK party than any of his predecessors, much more prepared to put his head above the parapet, much more prepared to criticise and put clear blue water between them,” Maciver says. 

“The reality, unfortunately for Douglas, is that none of that matters. When people get to the ballot box in an election in Scotland and the word Conservative is on the ballot, they don’t have Douglas Ross in their head – they have Boris Johnson in their head. Fundamentally that’s no different to what happened in years gone by.”

When Johnson got to his feet for Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Ross had already called for him to go if it could be shown the PM had broken the rules. Johnson’s apology left the Scottish leader no other option but to unequivocally call for that resignation.

Speaking to STV later that day, Ross said: “I said yesterday if the Prime Minister attended this gathering, party, event, in Downing Street on 20 May then he could not continue as Prime Minister. So regretfully, I have to say that his position is no longer tenable.” 

But whether Johnson goes or not – and at the time of writing he is still in post – where does it leave the Scottish Conservatives?

“By staying inside the Conservative Party, what the Scottish centre-right is doing is consigning itself to perpetual defeat,” says Maciver. “That’s not what politics is about – you’re supposed to try and win. It’s so completely obvious this party can’t win and can’t form a Scottish Government, so you have to ask yourself, what are they there for?”

And while portraying themselves as defenders of the Union has no doubt helped secure votes at recent elections, Maciver believes it has turned the Conservatives into a single issue party.

“There’s no doubt about it. That is all the Tories are,” he says.

“One of the big mistakes they’re making is in thinking this ultra-Unionist approach is the best way of keeping the Union together. That’s totally wrong. Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar know the best way to keep the Union together, and that’s to create a looser, more relaxed structure. That’s the only future, other than independence. If you look at it dispassionately, the Labour Party is the real party of the Union, not the Tory party.”

The issue of a separate Tory party in Scotland was first put forward by Murdo Fraser when he stood for the leadership in 2011. While the idea died with the emergence of Ruth Davidson as leader, it has once again gained traction in light of the growing controversy surrounding the Johnson premiership.

Reacting to Ross’s decision to call for Johnson’s resignation, the academic and respected political commentator Professor James Mitchell tweeted: “Unambiguous evidence of ‘standing up to London’. Should make it easier in future to diverge from [the] line south of border. That line has been crossed. Potentially significant moment with unpredictable consequences.”

It didn’t take long for those unpredictable consequences to start manifesting themselves. Within hours of Ross’ comments, Michael Gove was throwing the Scottish Tory leader, an MP as well as an MSP, under a bus, saying “he’s in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London”.

Appearing on Newsnight, Jacob Rees-Mogg went a step further, calling Ross “quite a lightweight figure”, an attack one Scottish Tory source said Ross would be “privately delighted” about. “If there’s an archetypal Tory toff who as a Scottish Conservative you don’t want to be associated with, then Rees-Mogg is right at the top of that list,” he said. 

With interesting timing, coming less than 24 hours after Ross made his comments about the PM, the UK Government announced that Johnson would chair a new council with the devolved governments based on the “existing values of mutual respect, maintaining trust and positive working”. 

But if some English MPs appeared to fancy an immediate split with the Scottish party, those in Scotland take a more considered view.

More than a decade on from first suggesting a break with the UK party, Fraser now talks about a need for a “realignment” in Scottish politics similar to what happened in Canada in the 1990s when those parties in favour of retaining the status quo pulled together to help stave off the threat of independence for Quebec.

Rees-Mogg and Gove were among those who spoke out against Ross | Picture: Alamy

“Arguments around creating different party structures are not best held in an environment where they’re seen as a reaction to events south of the border or the conduct of a Conservative prime minister,” he says. “These debates should be held in the context of how we might better realign Scottish politics and whether current party structures are getting in the way of that.

“In an environment where most seats in the Scottish Parliament are contested on a first past the post basis, inevitably that gives a large advantage to the SNP and I think there’s an interesting debate to be had as to whether Scottish politics needs a realignment to provide a greater degree of balance.”

If Boris doesn’t resign, then I don’t think Douglas has much of a choice but to take the party somewhere else 

Fraser rejects the notion there is now a “civil war” between the party at UK and Scottish level.
“I don’t think it’s a civil war, but it is Douglas asserting a distinctive political position. I thought it was very significant how quickly the MSP group at Holyrood rallied round behind the stance he took.”

For Adam Tomkins, a constitutional lawyer and a Conservative MSP until the last election, the problem is Johnson. 

“We’ve got a huge range of issues to grapple with in economic policy, social policy, building back better post-Covid, to say nothing of environmental change and all the rest of it. The centre-right has something to say about all of these things. We need a credible, robust vehicle through which we can bring these ideas to the table.

“I am convinced that for as long as Boris Johnson is leader, the Conservative and Unionist Party cannot be that vehicle. If Boris doesn’t resign, then I don’t think Douglas has much of a choice but to take the party somewhere else.”

But Tomkins believes the Scottish Tories can reach a more “pragmatic” solution, one which retains a connection with UK party.

“I wouldn’t have joined a party or become an MSP for a party that I thought was doomed to fail,” he says. 

“It’s clear at the moment that we’re not able to bring our substantive policy ideas to the table because we’re not talking about the future of the economy or the future of social care – we’re talking about Boris Johnson.”    

Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - UK Climate Change Committee chair brands Australia 'a disgrace' and its PM 'a denier'

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