Be careful, Jacob Rees-Mogg. These “lightweights” could still deliver a knockout

By calling on Boris Johnson to resign, Douglas Ross has reminded us what devolution was supposed to be about all along

January 14, 2022
Douglas Ross is the first devolved leader to call for his UK-wide counterpart to resign. Image: PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo
Douglas Ross is the first devolved leader to call for his UK-wide counterpart to resign. Image: PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

Douglas Ross has not had it easy as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Splitting his time simultaneously between a seat in the Commons and another in Holyrood, leading the Scottish party, undertaking occasional professional duties as a football linesman as well as being a father with young children would test anyone. But Boris Johnson has proved his biggest challenge. Just as contempt for Margaret Thatcher helped mobilise support for devolution in the 1990s, loathing for Boris Johnson has helped sustain momentum for independence and undermined support the Scottish Tories had built after the 2014 independence referendum.

But Ross appears to have learned a lesson from an unlikely source. Rhodri Morgan, Welsh first minister from 2000 to 2009, had shown there was advantage in opening up “clear red water” between the Welsh Labour Party and the Labour government in London, even if much of this was simply rhetorical. Instead of steadfast loyalty to the leader in London given by successive Scottish Tory leaders after devolution, Ross has sought to create distance. 

In May 2020, three months before he became Scottish leader, Ross resigned as a junior Scotland Office minister when the PM failed to sack Dominic Cummings for breaking coronavirus rules. This was hardly noticed at the time, and few saw it as a sign of how he would lead his party.

But Ross’s demand that Johnson step down over the Downing Street party revelations suggests a different type of leadership and new variant of Scottish Tory unionism. It may be more a case of seeking to create clear clean water between the Scottish and UK parties than clear blue water, but it signals an assertion of autonomy not previously seen. The unprecedented suggestion that Johnson will not be expected to appear at the Scottish Conservative conference in March is perhaps a sign of further divergence to come. These developments are not about posturing or building a new support base, but the party’s survival north of the border. Opinion polls after the Downing Street parties suggest that all six Scottish Tory MPs would lose their seats in a general election.

The SNP has made much of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent condescending dismissal of Ross as “lightweight.” Most Scottish voters would probably have agreed with Rees-Mogg before this string of scandals in Downing Street, but many are likely to question this assessment now. And many may, at least privately, admire Ross for confronting the prime minister while a succession of Cabinet “heavyweights” have remained loyal to Johnson. Ross has no illusions that he will ever wear the crown of Tory leader for the whole United Kingdom, and that will have made it easier for him to be first to wield the knife. He has the support of his fellow Tory MSPs, including those previously underwhelmed by his leadership, even though he has made enemies among Tories in the Commons. It was no surprise that Murdo Fraser, who had stood against Ruth Davidson in the 2011 leadership contest on a platform of greater autonomy for the Scottish party, was among the first to back Ross. Davidson may have defeated Fraser, but Fraser’s thinking now looks more relevant in shaping the future of the party.

If Johnson is forced out, then the lightweight will have knocked out the heavyweight champion. And if, as seems possible, a new prime minister dispenses with the services of Rees-Mogg, Ross will be able to claim two scalps. Not bad for a lightweight. In turn, the Scottish Tories will present themselves not only as willing to stand up for Scotland, but claim to be more effective in doing so than Sturgeon and the SNP.

Nobody could accuse Douglas Ross of being weak in his support for the union. At the same time, he has begun to show that there is an alternative to the unionism that left his Scottish party totally subservient to the leadership in London. He may even have inadvertently discovered the purpose of devolution: a system of government that can accommodate differences, including significant ones, without jeopardising the integrity of the UK. The unionism that demanded uniformity and subservience is the greater threat.