The Scottish Conservatives are increasingly concerned about Boris Johnson as PM
“I think there are a number of people within the Conservative Party who need to take a long, hard look at themselves.”
It was difficult to escape the sense of frustration emanating from Ruth Davidson. Speaking to the BBC, just weeks after returning from maternity leave, this was hardly the sort of return to politics the Scottish Tory leader would have hoped for.
“Yes, I understand of course we have got to respect the referendum result, of course we’ve got to deliver Brexit, but not at the expense of breaking up the UK,” she said
“I would remind people of their obligations within the party – yes, we’re a Conservative party, but we’re also a Unionist party, and I’d remind them that our own union of nations is every bit as important as leaving someone else.”
Davidson was speaking on the back of a new poll of Tory members across the UK, and with the results suggesting a majority are willing to sacrifice the Union, allow Scottish independence and bring a united Ireland in order to achieve Brexit, the numbers were not at all helpful for the Scottish leader.
Her language was actually pretty measured, given the circumstances, but you can only imagine how Davidson reacted privately. In fact, “take a long, hard look at themselves” was probably the toned-down version.
The poll, conducted by YouGov, found 61 per cent of Conservative and Unionist Party members were in favour of Brexit, even if it caused significant damage to the economy.
It was extraordinary. According to the survey, 54 per cent would rather see their own party “destroyed” than stay in the European Union, with four in 10 even saying they would be happy to see Jeremy Corbyn inside Number 10 if it meant leaving.
But the poll also revealed why many of the rank-and-file are so committed to seeing Brexit delivered, with 44 per cent responding that leaving without a deal will help them win the next election, and 14 per cent saying it will keep them in power well into the future too. Meanwhile, 51 per cent said if Brexit does not take place then it will “damage the Conservative Party to the extent that it will never lead a government again”.
And the bit that angered Davidson? Almost two thirds of those members would be willing to allow Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, and 59 per cent would rather Northern Ireland left, than Brexit not taking place at all.
Brexit appears to be the only issue dominating the minds of Tory voters, and with the party’s membership responsible for choosing the next prime minster, you can see why the Scottish Tory leadership is worried.
Both leader Ruth Davidson and deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, who spent the last year covering for his boss, have backed Jeremy Hunt, with the future of the Union playing a large part in their decision-making.
As Carlaw explained on Twitter: “[I’ve] taken my time over any endorsement. Impressed with the energy, commitment and substance shown by @JeremyHunt and his resolute defence of the UK.”
He added: “Scottish Conservatives must make the right choice to be our UK leader and Britain’s next Prime Minister.”
Their endorsement came amid growing concern over what Boris Johnson as PM would mean for the party’s fortunes north of the border. ‘Operation arse’ – the Scottish Conservative campaign to derail his journey to Number 10 – may have become more low key since Johnson emerged as the front runner, but concern has not abated, with senior Tories issuing a series of off-the-record briefings to press, describing the prospect of his premiership in fairly apocalyptic terms. ‘Catastrophe’ seems to have been one of the preferred adjectives.
For his part, Carlaw has described himself as a “sceptic” of the former London mayor, telling STV: “He’s an intelligent man who deliberately uses loose language in a way which I find unacceptable.
“If Boris does become the leader of the Conservative Party, he’s got a hell of a lot to prove to me and to the country that he is the right man for the job.
“I’ll judge him by what he does in office but I start certainly as a sceptic as to whether he’s the right man for the job, which is why I’m backing Jeremy Hunt.”
Hunt took time to try and win over the Scottish party during a whistle-stop tour of Scotland – he posed with Irn Bru and a fish supper – and the Foreign Secretary obviously sees himself as a favourite for the unionist vote.
As Hunt put it, reaching out to Scottish Tories: “I’ve got Welsh blood, Irish blood and spent two happy years of my childhood in Scotland. I will never allow our union to be broken up.”
Johnson has yet to visit Scotland during the campaign, though he did make a brief foray before the Scottish Conservative conference, with the MP for South Ruislip joining his Aberdeenshire colleague, Ross Thomson, on a tour of factories, oil and gas facilities and having the apparently mandatory sip of Irn Bru.
Thomson has been announced as his Scottish campaign manager. As he sees it: “The Prime Minister was unable to persuade colleagues of her proposals. The United Kingdom needs a leader, not a manager. It needs someone who can chart a course, stick to it and get people to follow them. After much contemplation and discussions with constituents and activists, I have reached the conclusion that only Boris Johnson can do that.”
But while Johnson has promised to “put strengthening our Union at the heart of everything I do”, it’s not just Tories that remain unconvinced, with former prime minister Gordon Brown launching a blistering attack on his willingness to pursue a no-deal Brexit.
In a speech to the Fabian Society and Hope not Hate at Westminster Cathedral Hall, Brown warned: “Talking up no deal means renouncing the chance of a positive post-Brexit relationship with the continent and our major economic partners; it is yet another example of an inward-looking, isolationist and dogmatic approach that has no economic logic and runs counter to our long-term national interest.
“But Boris Johnson is not just defining his patriotism as being anti-European. Look at what he has written on the Union – not in the heat of the moment during a referendum – but continuously over 20 years.”
“First, representation: he believes that the number of Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament should be substantially reduced. When it comes to the devolution settlement, he would curtail the Scottish Parliament making their own decisions in devolved areas such as universities and social care. And if the Scots were in dire need, he would have an answer: ‘I propose that we tell them to hop it’.”
This, he explained, amounted to “a manifesto vehemently opposing the three constitutional pillars upon which today’s union is built – Scottish representation in the UK Parliament, Scottish devolu-tion and Scottish funding.”
It was pretty devastating stuff, even if Tory members may not be particularly inclined to take direction on their voting from a former Labour PM. And it was left to Thomson to respond, asserting: “I know Boris is a passionate believer in the Union, or what he calls ‘the awesome foursome’, and he will ensure that strengthening the UK is at the heart of his government, making it a priority.
“Further, he will ensure that the UK Government gets proper credit for policy achievements in Scotland, not just the nationalist government in Edinburgh.
“What Gordon Brown failed to acknowledge is that the very worst thing that could possibly happen to our union is to allow Jeremy Corbyn propped up by the SNP into Number 10. That is the surest way to see another referendum and the breakup of our United Kingdom.”
A key part of Brown’s warning related to growing nationalism across the UK. Yet while SNP supporters may seethe at seeing their brand of nationalism lumped in with a more insular Eurosceptic movement, there’s no doubt the party’s strategists will have identified an opportunity.
So while the Scottish Government outlined more details of its plans for a ‘Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland’, aimed at stimulating discussion on Scotland’s constitutional future, the SNP went on the attack.
As SNP depute leader Keith Brown put it, shortly before Jackson Carlaw announced his own scepticism over the former London mayor’s conduct: “We know that Boris Johnson is no stranger to scandal – but Jeremy Hunt in Number 10 poses just as big a risk to our economy and the future of Scotland’s NHS.
“Jeremy Hunt is every bit as callous as his Tory colleagues – consistently voting in Parliament against the right for EU nationals to remain in their homes, while slashing welfare spending and giving tax cuts to the rich.”
He added: “People deserve better than this pair of dangerous Tory candidates to become the next prime minister – it’s time for Scotland to choose a different path and take our future into our own hands.”