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9 June 2022

Boris Johnson’s survival will doom the Scottish Tories

Douglas Ross’s abysmal handling of the Conservatives’ leadership crisis is a gift to Scottish Labour.

By Chris Deerin

The artist Paula Rego, who died this week, said that “we make sense of the world through stories. That’s how you give life some structure.”

The same is true of politics. We use stories to capture and frame what can otherwise appear to be endless chaos, to imprint a clear, sanity-preserving narrative on events and trends both short and long-term. Applied to Holyrood right now, this means: Nicola Sturgeon leads an incompetent government that remains unaccountably popular; that Labour under Anas Sarwar is on the road back; and that the Tories under Douglas Ross are on the way down.

There is enough truth to justify each of these claims even if, to borrow a line from Al Murray, it’s much more complicated than that.

The danger, or advantage, for politicians is that these narratives become self-fulfilling, spreading through the media – affecting the nouns and adjectives that we choose, our angle of approach – and into the minds of the electorate, thence to the voting booths.

Particularly cursed at the moment is Ross, the hapless leader of the Scottish Conservatives (there, “hapless”, I’ve followed the narrative). Ross is at the helm of a party that is emerging from what was on its own terms something of a golden era. The image of Ruth Davidson gleefully clattering her opponents with her quick mind and chunky fists, of the photo-op queen leaping on to a tank or the back of an alarmingly sharp-horned bull, presenting a grinning and energised face to the whole UK, is fading from the minds of the liberal middle classes. In its place is a tableau of dull grey men, angry without being especially effective, rather one-dimensional in their concerns, victims of events rather than their drivers.

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This year has been horrible for the Scottish Tories. They were beaten into second place by Labour in the recent local elections – Sarwar attracts image-burnishing epithets such as “charismatic” and “likeable” – and the expectation is that the same thing will happen at the next Holyrood election in 2026.

If Ross’s lack of sparkle hardly helps, there is not much anyone could do about the destructive tsunami washing northwards from Westminster, which is surely one of the reasons the clear-sighted Davidson got out when she did. The question of what to do about Boris Johnson may be tying his English MPs in knots – in Scotland it looks increasingly fatal for everyone in a blue rosette.

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Nevertheless, Ross has played a bad hand badly. He has ratted, re-ratted and re-re-ratted on whether he supports Johnson remaining in office. First he wanted him gone, then he didn’t, and now he does again (though with Johnson having survived the no-confidence vote, one presumes the bewildered Ross will now argue the government must get on with more important things – this re-re-re-ratting must be some kind of record, a display of flexible principles to make even the Prime Minister blush).

His opponents scent blood. Sarwar sent a cheeky public letter to Ross this week asking whether he would campaign for Johnson at the next general election. “Voters have a right to expect their politicians to show integrity, consistency and honesty… you have adopted six different positions on rule-breaking and the leadership of Boris Johnson. Surely you and your party cannot, in good conscience, campaign for a man who you have no confidence in?”

Just because it’s Sarwar saying it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Such has been the hostility from Scotland’s elected Tories towards Johnson that the relationship is clearly irrecoverable. Almost all 31 Tory MSPs have been opposed to the PM continuing in office, and four of six Scottish MPs voted to eject him this week. If a general election is called before either Johnson or Ross have quit, or if they are both still in their jobs by Holyrood 2026, it will be an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience. Labour, especially, will make hay as they compete for the votes of Unionists.

If politics were only about money, then the Tories might have a stronger hand. The huge state spending of the past few years, first with the billions that funded furlough, now with the sums being dispatched to ameliorate the cost-of-living crisis, show that Westminster retains the kind of fiscal firepower that an independent Scotland would lack, certainly in its early years. The UK government has not left the poor to hang, whatever its critics say.

The recent spending review by the SNP finance minister Kate Forbes was an attempt to square the circle of the Scottish government’s generous social commitments with the inevitable restrictions imposed by inflation and low growth. The usual attempts to blame the situation on the Conservatives felt hollow and reflexive this time. As the Tory MSP Murdo Fraser put it in an article for the Scotsman: “We have a UK Conservative government actively increasing the size of the State and overseeing substantial increases in public spending.” In contrast, he wrote, the SNP was “introducing a new strain of austerity, and one which will put into the shade anything we have seen from Westminster in recent times.”

But politics is about more than money – in Scotland, especially, it is about identity. As such, it is Scottish Labour, with the benefit of a growing lead in the UK polls for the national party, that is likely to benefit most in the next few years. The message will be plainly and relentlessly put: if you want a Labour government at Westminster, you have to come home to Labour in Scotland; there will be no deal with the SNP, no second independence referendum, but there will be social democracy in the UK.

It is entirely possible that soft nationalist voters, tired of waiting for an IndyRef that never comes, and struggling with their own household finances, decide to re-prioritise, and that disillusioned Conservatives do the same.

The sweet spot for Scottish Labour is to win the votes of enough soft Tory and SNP voters to regain a chunk of Scottish seats at Westminster. This will then suggest they are within striking range of the SNP at Holyrood. Momentum follows momentum. The Tories sink beneath the waves.

That’s the narrative that Sarwar is fighting for. And it’s one that Ross – certainly for as long as Johnson, bringer of chaos, remains in Downing Street – is probably powerless to resist.

[See also: Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader?]