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Why Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross will remain a headache for Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister needs to change his character if he is to reverse his dramatic unpopularity in Scotland, warns Ross. 

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What do you do with a problem like Boris? For Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, this is a live and pressing question. He is preparing for next May’s Holyrood election in the grim awareness that his boss, the Prime Minister, enjoys poll ratings north of the border somewhere between those of an estate agent and a serial killer.

Ross’s main opponent Nicola Sturgeon has a giddying lead over Johnson in the popularity stakes – her approval rating in Scotland stands at plus 50 to the PM’s minus 50, according to YouGov. It makes for a hard sell for Ross, who took over as leader only in August and who also needs to establish a profile of his own among the electorate, despite currently being without a seat in the Scottish parliament.

What he has done successfully is quickly establish a reputation for plain speaking. Interviewing him for my think tank Reform Scotland this week, I pointed out that his early months have largely comprised a litany of public disagreements with his London colleagues. Indeed, I had prepared a little list: he supported Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign and the extension of furlough payments to Scotland, criticised English Tories over their lax approach to saving the Union, and scrapped the party’s opposition to university tuition fees. Earlier, he had also resigned from Johnson’s government over Dominic Cummings’s busting of lockdown rules. I could go on…  “You’re keeping a list. I don’t think you’re the only one keeping that list based on the comments and feedback I’ve had,” he said. “As we come up to Christmas I’m not sure I’m on everyone’s nice list and I might even be on some people’s naughty list.” No card from Boris and Carrie, then.

[See also: Scotland has never been closer to independence - and Boris Johnson is to blame

Ross must be gambling that his fiercely displayed independence can at least neutralise Johnson’s unpopularity as an electoral threat. Might it even be possible to change Scottish minds for the better? Ross was again frank. “I don’t think [Johnson’s unpopularity] is fixed, but we can’t ignore it,” he said. “The Prime Minister is not immune to these opinion poll ratings – it’s not as if they don’t cross the threshold into No 10. He gets that there’s an issue and I’m certain from the discussions I’ve had with him, as a strong defender of the Union, as someone who wants to see it continue to prosper, he wants to do everything he can to improve his ratings in Scotland and I don’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion that opinion will remain the same indefinitely.”

But how is such an unlikely transformation to be brought about? “It may mean changing his character, changing his narrative, a number of other things he can look at to address the failures certain people associate with him to see a shift in those numbers. It’s ensuring that you can learn the lessons from being unpopular to try to shift you back to popularity.”

I can’t imagine the suggestion that the PM alter “his character” will be greeted warmly in No 10. But on this as on much else, Ross calls it as he sees it. “I think people in 2020 want their politicians to be grown up, to understand that if you have figures put in front of you, you can try and waffle out of it and lose credibility or you can accept that yes, there is an issue there and what do we do to improve it? How do we change those figures? What do we do to look at why people have formed these opinions of certain politicians or certain governments and to try to dive down into those figures and turn them around.”

This toughness has been honed by officiating as a linesman at top-level football matches, he said, where the players and managers do not always make for jolly company. Pride of place in his Westminster office is a large photograph – not the Tory staple of Margaret Thatcher or the Queen, but of Ross shaking hands with Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi after a Champions League match. 

He has taken lessons from the football field into politics. “You’ve got to have a thick skin for them both. I’ve done several Old Firm derbies in which 50 per cent of Glasgow agrees with my decisions and 50 per cent disagrees. You have to take unpopular decisions and you’ve sometimes got to take them very quickly. You’ve got to be confident in your own abilities to take them, and be able to sell the decision. That’s part of being a match official and a referee and also part of being a politician – not just the process of getting to decision point but actually convincing people you’ve got it right.”

The theory is sound, though the reality is considerably tougher. Ross clearly feels his task is not being made easier by colleagues in London – regular and clumsy English interventions in the Scottish independence debate weary him. The day before we spoke, John Major had been the latest grandee to erupt, suggesting that if there is a second referendum it should be followed by a third, in the shape of an affirmatory vote on the deal agreed between London and Edinburgh.

[See also: Why the SNP still doesn't have a good answer to the currency question]

And it’s not just the politicians. Ross believes the sages of Fleet Street consistently show too little understanding of the nuances of the Scottish constitutional debate and miscommunicate the situation to their readers. His first speech to the Conservative Party Conference as leader was notable for an attack on what he sees as the defeatist approach taken towards independence by those at Westminster. 

He regretted nothing, he told me: “It made people start thinking ‘he’s right – there is disinterest [sic] in the case for the Union and many people think the matter has pretty much been decided, it’s a foregone conclusion that Scotland will separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. I want to say ‘no, that’s wrong’, and particularly to the London media, who don’t look in as much detail as the Scottish media at the SNP’s handling of the economy, education and many other issues. It’s very easy for them to portray the Scottish government as doing things better and different but actually they’re not.”

Statements such as Major’s – the former PM in effect arguing that indyref2 should be followed speedily by indyref3 – are viewed by Ross as unhelpful diversions from a campaign and strategy that need to be designed and fought in Scotland, and from holding the SNP to account over its handling of Covid and public services. Major seems to have transferred a wistful wish that there had been a confirmatory vote on Brexit to the Scottish question.

“Every time someone, particularly from south of the border, decides to enter into the constitutional debate in Scotland we divert all our attention to that rather than concentrate on the issues that matter to the vast majority of voters across Scotland,” Ross told me.

He doesn’t like Major’s proposal in any case, “for the simple reason that again it allows the SNP and people who support separation to almost make it a norm that the country will separate from other parts of the United Kingdom. If you say you’re going to have that referendum and then a confirmatory vote you are suggesting you think that’s going to happen.”

Ross also worries that such an approach is short-sighted, in that it would only provide the SNP with extra opportunities to shout about grievances with Westminster, something they are particularly good at. “Through all these tussles and arguments and disagreements we’ve found that the vast majority of times it’s the Scottish government or the SNP that come out the victors rather than the UK government. I think we would be handing to the SNP another opportunity to fuel grievance with a distinct lack of analysis and scrutiny of their own plans, because they would focus all the attention on what the UK government would have to concede, and they would – as they successfully and skilfully do – move the conversation away from key issues such as the currency, pensions, our place in Europe.”

In two recent conversations with the new Scottish Tory leader I have found him to be intelligent, thoughtful, honest and likeable. He has a good sense of humour and tries hard to avoid the cliché and meaningless blah so common to his profession. It used to be said of Major that if only every voter could meet him in person then they would vote for him. Ross has a similar charm, and a similar difficulty.

If Ross fails in next May’s Scottish election it won’t be for lack of effort. “I want voters to take a second look at the Scottish Conservatives, and you take a second look because people don’t say or do what you expect them to,” he said. “If, after I became leader, people saw the same old Conservative Party they saw in previous elections, this stereotype, that wouldn’t be right for me. People can see here’s a party willing to look at policy areas and concerns that they haven’t in the past.”

It sounds like Ross will be staying on Boris Johnson’s naughty list for a while yet, and that my own little list of disagreements will only grow.

[See also: The twilight of the Union]

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