Scottish Tories fear being the victims of Boris Johnson’s government

Faced with a hard Brexiteer cabinet, the party has lost its momentum and spirit of optimism. 

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It’s a sobering thought that if Ruth Davidson had been in the cabinet she would almost certainly have been fired this week by Boris Johnson.

Davidson may be one of the most popular and well-liked Tories in the UK, but that fact would likely not have saved her – it may indeed have counted against her. Not that Johnson would have needed extra reasons. She was prominent in the Remain movement, is a liberal, pro-immigration centrist, and went head-to-head – bruisingly – with the new PM during the referendum campaign. She also backed practically everyone but Johnson in the leadership campaign, and was for Jeremy Hunt in the run-off. Her preference for David Mundell to remain as Scottish secretary has been dismissed, and the low-profile Johnson backer Alister Jack installed in his stead.

It’s also likely there will only be room for one star in this government. Charismatic, funny, outspoken, smart and brave – no, Ruth wouldn’t do at all.

So there we have it. The new administration is a bare-faced assertion of the dominance of a certain type of English nationalism in the United Kingdom. Many of the ministers (and backroom staff) are the kind that would be favoured by a particular kind of Conservative activist, and unfavoured by the Thatcher-loathers north of the border. Scotland – truculent, obstinate, pro-EU, progressive Scotland – simply doesn’t fit, or, it seems, much matter.

Even Johnson’s main priority, to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October one way or another, with or without a deal, can be seen as an affront to Scotland’s democratic wishes. The “awesome foursome”? Just as long as we fall into line and don’t make trouble, it seems. Good luck with that – have you ever met a Scottish person?

The consequences of all this for Davidson as the next devolved election approaches are not certain, but perhaps predictable. 2021 was supposed to be the year she made a credible attempt to unseat the SNP from power in Edinburgh. That outcome may never have been likely, but the Scottish Tories were up for the fight in an optimistic, “Yes We Can” way. That can-do optimism is not so evident now. They will of course still give it a go, but my sense is that they have lost their pep, and are resigned to the role of victims of whatever wheezes emerge from Downing Street.

As ever, a word of caution – Scots are as susceptible to charm as anyone else, and who knows how Johnson will play things. If he does get Britain out of the EU this year and if he behaves like the cosmopolitan some of his supporters claim he truly is, opinions could change. Davidson remains formidable and her own woman. But likelier, surely, is that Scotland’s drift from the centre of UK politics continues, and is even accelerated. There’s a reason top SNP types are privately delighted at this turn of events. They can see the prospect of a second independence referendum, and a vote to break up Britain, looming into sight.

Senior Scottish Tories don’t expect Johnson and his team will listen to them much. The appointment of Jack merely seems to confirm what they have suspected for a while – you’re either in the camp or out of it. This doesn’t look like an administration set on building bridges with its sceptics and opponents. Quite the opposite.

Even Davidson’s response to his victory largely avoided the platitudes and make-nice that usually accompanies these moments. She said: “I've been perfectly open and honest with him he wasn't my choice for leader, I didn't vote for him. However, I will judge his premiership by his actions in office, as will everybody across the country. We'll see what he makes of it, and he's going to have to make a pretty good fist of it pretty early because of the challenges he's facing.”

The Scottish Tories are now putting their hope in Brexit being successfully concluded soon, or at least in such a way that allows them to move the debate in Scotland back to more sympathetic matters. One source said: “My basic view is that the only thing that now matters re Boris, the Union, independence, us, Ruth and all the rest of it isn’t who is the minister for paperclips but whether we can finally get a deal over the line, preferably by 31 October. Not fashionable to say it, but nothing has changed…”

We shall see. In the meantime, the Boris vs Ruth show will be worth watching closely.

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