Can Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross thwart an SNP majority?

The Scottish Tories can’t win the next election but they could yet block a second independence referendum.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

You are Douglas Ross and you are, suddenly, leader of the Scottish Conservatives. It’s a hell of a time, you know, to take that wormy old chair – to get yourself heard, to catch the electorate’s eye, to make everyone just shut up and listen.

Your opponent is a problem. She is one of the most charismatic and wily – and noisiest – politicians of the age. She has long surfed a wave of public approbation. In this war against Covid-19, affiliation is an unaffordable luxury, and everybody depends on her getting it right – for our health, our jobs, our fortnight in Mallorca, for the simple right to a Friday pint or five. She’s all there is. And so we really need Nicola Sturgeon to smash it. 

For these reasons she currently lives, rent-free, in our heads. You do not. You are not even in Holyrood, when being there would at least get you on TV most weeks. Your name recognition is low. One of the few things – perhaps the only thing – people know about you is that you’re a football linesman, which seems…well, weird. You need to smile more. 

And there’s not really any time. An election is seven months away, and the SNP is on course not just to win it, but to achieve an overall majority. That will mean a second independence referendum, which will be something like a civil war, or a fight with London to allow a referendum, which will also be something like a civil war. It will mean two unbroken decades of SNP rule. It could very easily mean the end of the 313-year-old Union. 

And you, Douglas Ross, are leader of the Scottish Conservatives. So what are you going to do? First you need a team. You’re lucky that Ruth Davidson is still, for now, in Edinburgh, and can front up against Sturgeon. She used to do your job and did it well – she got herself heard. Davidson had earmarked you as her successor a few years ago, and helped you get the leader’s job. “This is a Ross-Ruth double ticket,” says an ally. Could be worse.

To run your staff you appoint Russell Findlay. This is an unorthodox but interesting step – Findlay is a veteran investigative journalist who has until now operated outside the bubble and inside the dank world of Glaswegian gangsters. He is sharp, tough and properly streetwise – an irate Glaswegian crook once hired a hitman to throw acid in his face; the hitman came off worse. Findlay’s friends joke about horses’ heads in Sturgeon’s bed.

And you begin to take decisions that you hope will make voters sit up. Your immediate predecessor Jackson Carlaw helpfully committed to scrapping the “rape clause” imposed by the Conservatives at Westminster.

You’ve now followed this up by abandoning the party’s support for university tuition fees. Scotland seems to have decided it can run its higher-education system without charging students (though you’ll pay if you’re English and, soon, if you’re a post-Brexit European). The data actually indicates that the fees arrangement south of the border is fairer for students from low-income backgrounds, and many of our universities and colleges are in a terrible economic condition, but facts don’t always beat perception. “We need to get rid of the shibboleths that make people think we’re nasty,” says a Tory MSP. “So the rape clause goes, tuition fees go. Never mind the financial reality – it’s not like he’s going to have to deliver any of it.”

You make a conference speech which contains a Tony Blair-like challenge to your own party, accusing your English colleagues of defeatism and apathy towards the Union. “The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh,” you say. This again is clever, showing you’re willing to assert your autonomy. It’s worth reminding people you quit as a minister in Boris Johnson’s government over Dominic Cummings’ breach of the Covid-19 rules.

Colleagues speak of an urgency and ruthlessness – if not Ruth-lessness – to your leadership. “Ruth liked her retail politics, and Douglas seems to be cut from the same cloth. He’s a sort of unvarnished Ruth,” says an MSP. 

Your strategy seems to be simple, if not easily achievable. You know you won’t be first minister after next May, and so your aim is to sabotage an SNP overall majority. If Sturgeon falls short, and if she can’t make up the pro-independence numbers in parliament with the Greens, then there won’t be a second referendum. This is the dream – the relegation of independence in Scottish political debate, and its replacement with scrutiny of the state of our schools and our economy, where the SNP is vulnerable.

As of today, this seems unlikely but not unthinkable. A poll published this week, in which University College London surveyed 45,000 Scots, found confidence in Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic had slipped from 34 per cent to 17 per cent. There has been hostility to the First Minister’s latest restrictions – with pubs and restaurants in central Scotland closed – which critics say pose a grave threat to the hospitality industry.

Sturgeon’s reputation is also under attack as the inquiry into her government’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Alex Salmond continues. Her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, has been criticised over his private messages and is coming under pressure to step down. Sturgeon’s account of her meetings with Salmond, and her apparently wobbly recollection of what she knew and when, has the capacity to rebound on her. Critics within the SNP are watching, and waiting.

Even so, the chaos around the governing party is so compelling that it leaves little space in the public conversation for its main challenger. Remember how the Blair-Brown squabbles were more interesting than anything Michael Howard or Iain Duncan Smith had to say? Same again.

It’s quite a moment to take the reins of a party that has such a darkly complex relationship with Scots, and such a recent history of resentment and rage. The challenges are historic and formidable – but then, commensurately, so are the potential rewards.

All you can really do is knock over those shibboleths, show you’re your own man, and hope your opponents self-implode. You’re Douglas Ross and you’re trying. And maybe, just maybe, enough people will listen.

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

Free trial CSS