The Scottish Conservatives have pinned the future of its party on a little-known MP named Douglas Ross. The part-time football linesman and MP for Moray was named as the Scottish Tories’ new leader following the controversial resignation (or ousting depending on which political commentator you believe) of Jackson Carlaw.
It is hoped that Ross can counteract the surge in support for Scottish Independence and the entrenchment of the SNP as Scotland’s ruling party. But he is fighting an uphill battle.
The Problem with Boris
With Boris Johnson at its helm, its hard to think of a UK Government in recent history that has been more unpopular with Scottish voters.
From Johnson’s history of insulting the nation (“a pound spent in Croydon is worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde”) to Priti Patel’s idea of building a holding cell for refugees on a Scottish island, it’s not hard to see why Nationalists in Scotland tend to react with glee every time a UK Government Minister gets on the train to Edinburgh for a Ministerial visit.
Polling shows that Scots see the UK Government, with Boris Johnson at its helm and its focus on a deeply unpopular Brexit, as out of touch with Scotland and its needs – with a YouGov poll putting his net approval rate in Scotland at minus 50.
And Douglas Ross knows this. That is why he is attempting to distance himself from Johnson, stressing in interviews that he wouldn’t be afraid to vote against the party line in the interests of Scotland, and using his conference speech to chastise the English branch of the party for its failure to protect the Union. It’s a smart move: Scottish voters don’t trust the Westminster Tories, but Ruth Davidson’s success in making the Scottish Conservatives Scotland’s second largest party shows that Scottish voters may also disregard this dislike if their MSPs and MPs are seen to be different.
But can Ross pull off a similar move? The problem he faces is that he is not nearly as well as Ruth Davidson (a recent YouGov poll found that only 13% of voters think he would be a good leader, and 51% ‘Don’t Know’, presumably because they don’t know who he is) and his second job as a linesman – far from making the voters relate to his love of football – is drawing criticism as he misses key votes and even a veteran’s memorial event to officiate at matches. And, as is inevitable in the unkinder parts of the internet, memes of his more embarrassing officiating moments tend to saturate Scottish political twitter every time he opens his mouth on TV.
The challenge then for Ross is how he overcomes the novelty factor of being a politician who you might see in Westminster one day and then running the line at an Old Firm match the next. He needs to position himself as credible opposition, capable of taking on both the SNP and Boris at the same time.
Reinventing the party
Key to being seen as a credible leader will be sorting out the voter’s perception of the who the Scottish Conservatives are and what they stand for.
Under Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories managed a partial reinvention of itself from the ‘nasty party’ to a more modern, socially conscious version of itself. In doing so, it took on the mantle of
defenders of the Union – rising to become the official opposition in Scotland and, ending panda jokes everywhere, sending 13 Conservative MPs to Westminster in 2017.
But then Ruth stood down as leader, and the ‘partial’ part of that reinvention made itself known. You see, the reinvention hinged on Ruth Davidson herself, with her personal popularity and vocal pro-Union stance carrying the party through despite an unpopular Westminster Government and even attracting new voters despite Brexit. When Ruth passed the torch of leadership on to Jackson Carlaw, that veil of a new kind of Tory party slipped away, and Carlaw was unable to defend policies coming from Westminster.
Enter Douglas Ross. His job is to pick up where Ruth left off, mitigating damage that might occur to the reputation of the Conservatives due to Brexit, the Covid-19 response, and other unpopular policies. Ross knows that policies that win in England don’t always win in Scotland, and to win back the voters lost during Carlaw’s reign means bringing the party firmly back to the centre right.
He’s not been slow in getting to work either, already dropping deeply entrenched Scottish Conservative policies like its long-standing opposition to free University tuition.
Again, this is a smart decision – based on a firm understanding that the Scottish Conservatives need to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Party– but it is also risky. U-turns on long standing policies risk Ross being seen as hypocritical and could alienate the Scottish Conservative’s base voters. He will need to manage the messaging carefully, setting out his reasoning and framing any changes to policies as a positive move, or risk gaining new voters only to lose old ones.
He also faces the challenge that, for now, Ross is still based in London as an MP, rather than in Edinburgh as an MSP. While he plans to stand in the next Holyrood election, for now he is handicapped by being unable to articulate his policies during important set-pieces like First Minister’s Questions. He needs to work out how he can communicate with voters, and show himself to be of leadership quality, while having to rely on the ever-capable Ruth Davidson to be his voice in the Scottish Parliament.
At the end of the day, Douglas Ross’ success in showing the Scottish public that he can be a credible leader, stand up to Boris, and reinvent his party, will all come down to effective comms and personality. Time will tell if he has the likability and credibility to pull it off.
Image via UK Parliament, shared under Creative Commons 3.0