Douglas Ross: the referee MP who could be tasked with saving the Union

The frontrunner to become the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives will have to contend with a bouyant SNP and a country increasingly in favour of independence.

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Jackson Carlaw’s defenestration as Scottish Tory leader after just six months in the job is a sign of the deep and real peril facing the Union. With characteristic Conservative ruthlessness, Carlaw has been red-carded, and is likely to be replaced by the MP and erstwhile football referee, Douglas Ross.

The sudden departure of Ruth Davidson as leader last year was always going to be a problem for her party and for the broader Unionist cause. Davidson had been a popular national figure, an effective jouster with first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and a powerful advocate for Scotland’s place in the UK. She had taken the Tories to second place in the Scottish Parliament and returned the party to polling levels that had seemed impossible during the dog days of the late '90s and early 2000s.

Upon her resignation, Carlaw was seen as a safe pair of hands, but recent months have shown he clearly lacked the charisma and cut-through energy of his predecessor. Now, with a number of polls showing there is majority support for independence, the Tory machine has sprung into action. Senior figures in Scotland and at Westminster wanted Carlaw gone, and they now want Ross in the top job.

Tory sources say they are hoping Ross would impact on Scottish politics in two ways: by giving the party an electoral boost before the next Holyrood election in 2021, and by being a plausible frontman for the Unionist cause.

Ross is a quiet but tough operator. He resigned from his ministerial post in Boris Johnson’s government during the row over Dominic Cummings’s busting of lockdown. This, say allies, is typical of him. “He’s thrawn [a Scots word for stubborn], hard to second guess and knows his own mind. You need that in a leader.” Despite this, he is not factional and his candidacy is said to be supported by Johnson as well as Davidson. Davidson, who is leaving Holyrood next year, is set to stand in at First Minister’s Questions until a seat can be found for Ross at Holyrood.

Ross was elected as an MSP in 2016 – “he was the pick of the 2016 intake,” says a source – and pulled off an impressive victory over Angus Robertson, the SNP’s then Westminster leader, to become an MP in 2017. Having seen off one of the Nationalist big guns, the party hopes he could repeat that success on a grander scale as leader.

“He has energy and drive, is articulate and good on his feet, and he has the guts and resilience a leader needs,” says one supporter.

He will need both of those qualities in spades. There is growing confidence in SNP circles that independence is now only a short bound away. Sturgeon’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic has impressed Scottish voters; her personal and party ratings are stratospheric. The Nats are on course to win an overall majority at Holyrood next year, which would secure them a mandate for a second referendum and set the scene for a constitutional showdown with the Westminster government.

With Scottish Labour missing in action – Richard Leonard has, like Carlaw, failed to shine – it is up to the Tories to stop the SNP. “We need a big bang to re-establish the Scottish Conservatives, and to recapture the public’s interest,” says a senior MSP. “We realise that with Labour AWOL under Leonard, a huge responsibility rests on us, and Douglas is the person most likely to succeed.” He can be a bit dour and should smile more, say friends, but they believe he may yet become a “housewife’s choice”.

But there is no silver bullet that can save the Union. The first minister is formidable and popular, public opinion is shifting towards separation from the UK, and the pro-Union cause is still relying on the same economic arguments that won – just – in 2014. There has been little sign that the Better Together coalition is capable of producing a new narrative that will convince the majority of Scots to stay. Boris Johnson and his government are not well liked north of the border.

Ross is said to have become a referee because he was “rubbish” at football, despite his deep passion for the game. He is now being put on the pitch as his team’s star striker, but they are a few goals down and the clock is running out. The future of the UK could rest on him turning out to be a supersub.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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