Boris Johnson's failings were evident to voters in Scotland years ago. The UK Conservative party should have paid attention – Adam Morris
No-one was particularly in the mood for a snap general election as Christmas approached in 2019. Nevertheless, Scottish Conservative candidates breezed into that campaign with a reasonable sense of optimism.
They had been received well on the doorsteps for the Holyrood campaign in 2016, and even more warmly a year later for the general election in which the party returned a remarkable 13 seats.
But by 2019, one thing had changed. No sooner had the door-knocking begun than candidates, especially those seeking to retain the seats they’d won in 2017, were reporting back to central office with some bleak news.
And these weren’t left-leaning or independence-supporting people. They were targeted voters, well researched and canvased, who in most other circumstances would have voted Scottish Conservative.
Now, with alarming consistency, they were saying: “Sorry, I just can’t vote for him.”
So when the results came through and the party grimly hung onto six seats, we all knew why we had lost the other seven.
Some bogus explanations were floated. Brexit? Not really, by 2019 most people had made their peace with it and, even if they were cheesed off at the outcome and the implications, were becoming increasingly fed up by the wrangling and wanted it resolved.
On the other side, some hard-line unionists thought Boris wasn’t being bigged up enough. Perhaps if we’d got right behind him, we’d have seen a red wall-style effect in Scotland too?
That was always a weak argument, and one that ignored the fact Scotland’s “red wall” had already been broken down by Ruth Davidson during the referendum and subsequent election campaigns.
No – the sole cause of the party’s nosedive was Boris. Voters didn’t like him, and it’s been costing the party north of the Border ever since.
And now it’s doing the same down south. For all the talk of Partygate, deviant behaviour of MPs, and a haphazard response to Covid, there’s only one true reason these Conservative politicians are now turning against their leader.
They are worried about losing. At last, they have appreciated that going into an election with Boris as the leader will result in a trouncing.
Scottish Conservatives who lost their seats, and their staff whose jobs went with them, could have told them that a long time ago.
But is it all too late? Have the rebels, newly in possession of a backbone, factored in that Boris will try to fight on, and how that could take months or even years?
Of course, Mr Johnson may also be assisted in his fight to survive from some unlikely sources.
The last thing the Labour party wants is to go up against a different Tory – especially a reasonable and popular one – at the ballot box. It is firmly in their interests for him to remain in place for as long as possible.
It’s in the SNP’s interests too. His tenure may not have delivered the polling boost for independence that the nationalists would have hoped.
But as long as a second referendum remains a live possibility, they will want to fight that against the backdrop of a Johnson-run government.
So expect the opposition to theatrically go for the jugular on Boris while secretly hoping he stays in place.
The latest drama has naturally set tongues wagging within the Scottish Conservatives too, and has again raised the question of the value of separating from the UK party. It’s a development many leading Scottish Conservatives would be open to.
But they won’t want it to happen under bad terms – it has to be a good-times decision. Otherwise, it merely writes the Yes campaign’s key messages for the next couple of years. “Even the Scottish Conservatives can’t stand being in a union with Westminster – why should the rest of Scotland?”
As long as the Indyref2 question remains high up the agenda, a formal split of the party cannot happen.
And what of the question of independence, and the impact the developments of the last 48 hours may have?
It’s remarkable that the Yes campaign hasn’t been able to seize on the perfect storm of a deeply unpopular Prime Minister and a shambolic Brexit process to increase support for the break-up of the UK.
But unionists should be looking at that too. Did allowing Boris to stay in place for so long mean a chance was missed to put all this to bed? Whoever succeeds him must put this matter at the very top of his or her priority list.
The Johnson tenure is on life support and will draw to a conclusion one way or another relatively soon. For the party’s prospects at the next general election, it has probably gone on too long already.
The Boris premiership was built on foundations of sand, lurching from one desperate tactic to the next, always prioritising short-term gains over long-term good.
It’s a strategy that would be intolerable in almost any other walk of life.
He won’t be around to pay the price of that, but plenty of others will. Perhaps the next time alarm bells ring north of the Border when it comes to the well-being of the Conservative party, colleagues down south will swing into action a bit more quickly.
Adam Morris is a former head of media for the Scottish Conservatives
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