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30 July 2020

Jackson Carlaw’s exit as Scottish Conservative leader won’t fix the party’s real problems

The biggest problem is that the approach that once looked so successful now looks to have big structural problems.

By Stephen Bush

Jackson Carlaw has announced his departure as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, just six months after succeeding Ruth Davidson, declaring that he no longer believed he was the best-placed candidate to prevent Scotland from leaving the United Kingdom.

In a fitting symbol of his tenure, Carlaw’s last major intervention before the announcement was to criticise the SNP for selling branded masks on its website, a typically mystifying remark given that a) all the political parties sell branded goods on their websites, b) the Scottish Conservatives, like the SNP and the Westminster Conservatives, is calling for people to wear masks to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nicola Sturgeon’s response – that she found herself “feeling quite sorry” for Carlaw – summed up many of their clashes at Holyrood, in which the gulf in political acumen between the two figures always felt embarrassing to watch.

Over the course of his brief leadership, Carlaw consistently showed a poor political touch: passing up easy moments to distinguish himself from the party in Westminster over the Dominic Cummings affair, and failing to meaningfully alter perceptions of the SNP’s handling of the pandemic. As a result, his leadership was increasingly the subject of quiet consternation from other Scottish Tories, and there may be an element to which his exit was driven by a desire to leave voluntarily rather than be forced out. But his departure is unlikely to, in of itself, trigger an era of fresh Scottish Conservative success.

See also: Chris Deerin on why support for Scottish independence has surged during the pandemic

The party’s problem was summed up in the 2019 election – which Carlaw led the party into as interim leader – in which the party lost seven of its 13 Scottish seats. But the biggest problem was the manner of the defeat: Conservative incumbents were able to retain much of their vote but were overwhelmed by the ability of the SNP to attract Labour supporters who had voted against independence in 2014.

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While there is an undoubted difference in political quality between Davidson and Carlaw, the bigger problem is that the party’s electoral strategy of declaring itself as the biggest, most committed unionist party around doesn’t appear to represent a path to anywhere other than second place in Scottish elections – and even then, not a very good second place. When it is represented by a leader who has a far smaller national brand than Ruth Davidson did in 2016  – as it inevitably will be – it is yet harder because the party cannot easily sand off its unattractive edges to appeal to “No” voters who don’t usually back the Conservatives.

And while picking a leader with more political acumen than Carlaw may make the party feel better about itself week to week, it is unlikely to change that acute and painful political problem: that what you might call the party’s post-2014 “unification” strategy, of securing the backing of as many “No” voters as possible, has reached what looks to be a very hard ceiling. The party insteads need to pursue a “persuasion” strategy of getting voters who are agnostic or opposed to the union between Scotland and England to change their minds. But that strategy is easier said than done.

See also: Helen Thompson on why the union must be made to work