As coup d’états go, the removal of Jackson Carlaw as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was exemplary in its speed, efficiency and delivery. The only casualty was Mr Carlaw himself; clearly confronted with the evidence of haemorrhaging support by his own officer class – the self-defined men in grey kilts – he did the decent thing and accepted he had blown the chance of leadership that for 40 years he hoped would one day be his.
Defined by a ruddy complexion that captures his normally pugnacious and combative style, the mystery will always be how Mr Carlaw as leader became tamed, maybe absorbed, by the Holyrood bubble. Instead of the cut and thrust that were once his strength – and what supporters were expecting – he showed deference to a First Minister who played his newly discovered good manners like a fiddle. The most effective weapon against political leaders is ridicule and humour, for it robs all credibility from even the good arguments or achievements; thus, when one’s own supporters start making jokes about their leaders, the game is over.
By Wednesday – when nominations close – we can expect Douglas Ross, the MP for Moray, to become the Scottish Tories’ new leader in an unopposed coronation. By compressing the requirement for 100 members’ signatures to be obtained within only five days; having pre-arranged the return of Ruth Davidson to keep the new leader’s chair warm at FMQs; and, organising the quick and overwhelming endorsement of Mr Ross’s candidacy by Tory MSPs – the establishment wagons had formed their circle. Potential opponents had to get inside or be left to survive isolated outside it. Thus the coup was complete within hours of being made public.
Whether or not Mr Carlaw’s removal saves the party from popular rejection at next May’s Holyrood elections – and halts the secessionists from forcing another independence referendum that is not the public’s priority – remains a more problematic question. The fundamental flaw in the Scottish Tories’ latest contrivance is that it has still to reconcile the realpolitik of its own establishment’s opposition to Brexit.
I have argued in this column before that Ms Davidson’s past revival of Tory fortunes in Scotland owes itself primarily to her (very ably) repackaging the party as the best, most effective unionist offering that could provide an impervious roadblock to the SNP juggernaut.
Accordingly the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party became the Scottish Unionist and Conservative Party, a subtle but important difference. It broadened the Tories’ reach and appeal and removed enough of the toxicity that even Labour supporters were willing to lend the party their votes. The limitation on such a change in identity was that a vacuum was appearing where conservative beliefs were not being truly represented.
At some point this would have to be addressed by offering opposition arguments based on Conservative philosophy and a platform of Conservative policies – or someone else would come along and fill that vacuum.
The opportunity came after the 2016 referendum when the United Kingdom was asked the question about its membership of the EU and voted convincingly to leave. The only unionist position was to recognise the democratic outcome – to do otherwise was to be on the side of secessionists who would nurse as a grievance any geographical differences in voting patterns – no matter their irrelevance. Embracing Brexit would also have opened the door to attract SNP voters that formed the majority of the 38 per cent of Scots who voted to leave the EU – a far larger voting block than what the Scots Tories had themselves hitherto attracted.
The failure to embrace Brexit and instead going further in the opposite direction by denouncing its most popular advocate, Boris Johnson, only served to confirm SNP arguments about the Union being unworkable and against Scottish interests.
Arguments about the benefits of UK government policy have at best been half-hearted but, worse, mostly absent. The huge benefits to Scotland from regaining control of our country’s fishing grounds are seldom heard; the opportunities from freeports in Aberdeen, Grangemouth, Rosyth, Prestwick or Port Glasgow are not put; the jobs that could come from taking control of Scottish Government procurement rules or state aid are never mentioned.
I mention all the foregoing because this remains the fundamental weakness in the return of Ms Davidson under the auspices of Mr Ross. Will she welcome whatever deal the Johnson and Gove government delivers after the end of the transition period? Or will she call for it to be extended because she cannot bring herself to support the UK leaving without a trade deal?
If there is no extension will she abide by that or choose to accentuate her differences with the PM again? And will we at last hear real Conservative arguments – such as a demand that the SNP government matches the UK’s abolition of stamp duty for properties below £500,000?
Those same questions must of course apply to Mr Ross too.
Meanwhile the threat of George Galloway’s Alliance4Unity – whose participation in next May’s elections undoubtedly acted as the catalyst to Mr Carlaw’s demise because it was attracting Conservative supporters and participants – is not going away. As well as being anti-nationalist, Mr Galloway and his lead candidate for the Highlands, Professor Alan Sked, are both noted Brexiteers, giving a voice to what Mr Carlaw would not.
Unionism has, in campaigning terms, been strengthened by the replacement of Mr Carlaw by the Ross-Davidson double act. But for the party itself the coup changes little if it does not embrace a full British Brexit; until then it’s meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
•Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org