What now for the Scottish Conservatives?

The performance of the party's new leader could determine the future of the union

August 05, 2020
Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson in Edinburgh. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images
Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson in Edinburgh. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Whither the United Kingdom? It may have been thought that a global pandemic would halt the constitutional question that has plagued Scottish politics for so long. But the Scottish Conservatives are deeply worried about the union, and they have reason to be. The most recent polling suggests that independence now carries majority support in Scotland, with 54 per cent stating they would vote “Yes” if there were a new referendum.   

It is apparent that Jackson Carlaw, by his own estimation, was not the person to lead the party against this backdrop. As is inevitable in sequel acts, Carlaw never quite managed to rise above being “Ruth Davidson’s successor.” He failed to make an impression on the electorate or his own party. An internal crisis of confidence led to his necessary but “painful” self-inflicted resignation, though it is difficult to know to what extent Carlaw jumped and to what extent he was pushed.  

The performance of Douglas Ross as Carlaw’s replacement will be crucial for the Scottish Tories and for the future of the union. 

Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, told me: “The Tories give the impression of having been remarkably unconcerned about Scotland and the union, only to panic as the pro-independence majority hit 54 per cent.”  

Indeed, recent events have all come as something of a surprise. Carlaw was spotted rubbing elbows (literally) with the prime minister all but a week ago. This chumminess seemed initially comforting to the main branch of the party, but does little to commend a leader to voters north of the border. After all, Davidson clashed continuously with Johnson but remains the most popular leader the Scottish Tories have had. Johnson’s failings over the course of the pandemic, in contrast to Sturgeon’s apparent successes, means a close relationship bordering on subservience would not play out well for Ross. Internal voices had become increasingly critical of Carlaw’s leadership during the pandemic, claiming that he failed to hold Sturgeon and the SNP to account. Fortunately for the party, Ross has demonstrated his ability to work in government but also to leave it. He publicly resigned his junior ministerial role in the Scotland Office over Johnson’s decision to defend Dominic Cumming’s lockdown trip. Davidson threw her weight behind Ross from her new perch in the Lords. 

The swift anointment of a successor shows that the Scottish Tories are at least willing to put up a fight in the 2021 elections and in any future independence referendum. This cannot be said of Scottish Labour, who are just as dissatisfied with Richard Leonard but continue to plod along, trailing their last few seats into the SNP gulf as they go. Labour has essentially reached irrelevance in Scotland and the significance of this is too little discussed in Westminster, despite the party’s own review into the disastrous December 2019 result that states they cannot hope to win a general election without a turnaround in Scotland. Since Scottish Labour have a dithering position when it comes to another independence referendum it may be up to Ross to provide the face of the “No” campaign alone among current Scottish politicians. 

It will not be an easy task. The SNP are undoubtedly confident heading into the 2021 Holyrood elections and as Alyn Smith MP put it to me, “Time and time again, people across Scotland have rejected what the Tories have to offer at the ballot box.” In his view, “It’s difficult to see how the Scottish Tories can offer an attractive platform” next year. 

However, it is important to note that the splits in the SNP are incrementally becoming more apparent. The decision of its National Executive Committee the day after Carlaw’s resignation to require MPs to stand down in Westminster if they wish to run for Holyrood has effectively excluded Joanna Cherry from running for a seat in Edinburgh, a move surely welcomed by Sturgeon, who wishes to hold her potential rival at arm’s length. 

The Scottish Conservatives currently operate on a model of “creator, caretaker, undertaker.” The creator was Davidson, who popularised and won the party many seats; the caretaker was Carlaw, who lost seats but avoided destroying the party; it remains to be seen if Ross will truly be the undertaker, the one who may be at the helm when the union is lost, and with it the Scottish Tories’ raison d’être.