It was clear Douglas Ross had lost the dressing room, here is what the Scottish Tories need now - John McLellan

‘There will now be calls for leadership manoeuvring to be set aside until after the election, but that’s like asking alcoholics not to drink’

From throwing a milk shake over Taylor Swift live on stage or, as one commentator suggested, to shoving Sir David Attenborough downstairs, it’s hard to imagine how much more can go wrong with the Conservative election campaign.

“On reflection, an honest attempt to show Miss Taylor’s worldwide audience the impact of the British dairy industry was a mistake and I apologise,” said Prime Minster Rishi Sunak. “Sir David is, of course, a national treasure. What was an honest attempt to show just how strong our pensioners are with our triple-lock didn’t go as planned and I apologise…”

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If Conservative Campaign Headquarters has a list of things to avoid they must have just about ticked the lot and the latest opinion poll, for the Mail on Sunday, indicates a collapse the most pessimistic Tory supporter or wildly optimistic opponent would not have predicted when the election was called. Maybe a survey predicting the Conservatives will be reduced to a sub-Lib Dem rump of 37 is an outlier, and the defeat is less dramatic, but not if there is another public relations disaster like skipping the D-Day commemoration on Omaha Beach to do a pre-recorded television interview. Given the advisors involved will probably be gone in five weeks’ time anyway, they should have no further part in this campaign.

Douglas Ross after the official launch of his party's General Election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: PADouglas Ross after the official launch of his party's General Election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: PA
Douglas Ross after the official launch of his party's General Election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: PA

And now there is the extraordinary prospect of a Scottish leadership battle. Scottish Conservatives still hope for a relatively better night than in the south, but that was before the fall-out over leader Douglas Ross’s last-minute candidacy for the Aberdeenshire North and Moray East seat, and the deselection of the stricken David Duguid. From the amount of briefing to journalists from disenchanted Conservative MSPs, and an apparent leak to the Sunday Mail about Mr Ross’s expenses, it was glaringly obvious he had, in sporting terms he would recognise, lost the dressing room.

In my first draft of this column on Sunday, I wrote Mr Ross had “put a target on his back for the SNP and win or lose, his days as Scottish Conservative leader are now effectively numbered.” From his statement yesterday it appears this came as something of a surprise. “I have served as MP, MSP and leader for over three years now and believed I could continue to do so if re-elected to Westminster, but on reflection, that is not feasible,” he said.

On reflection? The cows in the Moray fields knew there would be a backlash after giving backword to the MSP group about his pledge to focus on the leadership and the Scottish Parliament. If he loses on July 4 and remains at Holyrood, opponents will accuse him of being a reluctant MSP. Last Thursday night, someone needed to stop him.

There will now be calls for leadership manoeuvring to be set aside until after the election, but that’s like asking alcoholics not to drink. At least it will encourage ambitious MSPs to get out and about, and Russell Findlay, Liam Kerr, Brian Whittle, Pam Gosal, deputy leader Meghan Gallacher or Scottish party chair Craig Hoy might all fancy their chances. In a membership vote Mr Hoy has the early advantage of regular media appearances. But for now, the question is not so much who should replace Douglas Ross, but what prospectus a new leader should promote. The General Election manifesto will be out soon, and probably dominated by the need to defeat the SNP, support for oil and gas, the rural economy generally, and an accelerated road building programme, which are all fine. But what comes after the SNP’s expected defeat matters as much.

The “Say no to Indyref 2” message will have run its last lap, and sights will need to be retrained on the Left beyond the SNP, and that means clearer decoupling from the liberal-left consensus which dominates Holyrood. The popularity of Alister Jack’s block on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill only exposed the timidity of the Scottish Conservative position in allowing a free vote. Russell Findlay’s hard line on justice plays well to core supporters and should appeal to “white van man” voters who have long departed to the SNP and who are also the spine of the small business sector which should be natural Conservative territory. They will need a strong pitch to persuade them to make such a big political leap, but that’s not to say the new Scottish Conservatives should latch onto anti-immigration rhetoric. But there is a legitimate case to be made for tighter control while NHS waiting lists stretch into years, schools are overflowing and standards falling, and the dire housing supply is worsening thanks to rent controls. Universities Scotland vice-convener Sir Paul Grice’s call for a rethink of free university tuition is another opportunity to challenge political orthodoxy. These issues are driven by public sector inefficiency which can be tackled by market-driven reforms from which the other parties will shy away. And all the while taxes keep rising under the false flag of progressiveness.

With support below 20 per cent, the future of the Scottish Conservatives might not matter to most voters, but the future of the right certainly matters to what passes for political balance in Scotland if, as the three main parties now all declare, growing the economy is their top priority. Whatever role government can play in pump-priming investment, true growth can only be generated by the private sector, and without credible pro-business political pressure the SNP and Labour will revert to type, and Scottish politics will just remain a public sector-driven moanathon.

If the Scottish Conservatives can hold on to three or four seats next month, it will give some encouragement that a foundation remains on which to build for the 2026 Scottish elections. Indyref 2 is not happening, vote for a strong opposition was never much of an offer, but while attacking the failed consensus might not win power immediately, Scottish Conservatives can at least be a standard bearer for naturally conservative Scots who need a voice.

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