Jackson Carlaw's resignation means next Scottish Conservative leader must move fast with UK's future at stake – John McLellan

Ruth Davidson, Douglas Ross and Michael Gove look set to spearhead the Scottish Tories’ campaign ahead of the 2021 Holyrood election, writes John McLellan
Ruth Davidson could hold the fort at First Ministers Questions in the Scottish Parliament if Douglas Ross MP becomes Scottish Conservative leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Ruth Davidson could hold the fort at First Ministers Questions in the Scottish Parliament if Douglas Ross MP becomes Scottish Conservative leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Ruth Davidson could hold the fort at First Ministers Questions in the Scottish Parliament if Douglas Ross MP becomes Scottish Conservative leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

My Thursday afternoons usually involve thinking about the topic for this column and this week seemed like a good opportunity to return to the SNP’s increasingly vilified Hate Crime Bill as full realisation spreads that its new “stirring up hatred” offences threaten basic freedom of speech.

On Monday, the Law Society of Scotland’s president, Amanda Miller, said the lack of clarity meant “certain behaviour, views expressed, or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction”. Then Scottish Police Federation general secretary Calum Steele said it could “devastate” the relationship between officers and public, explaining it “would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private”.

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As with the SNP’s repealed Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and abandoned Named Persons legislation, the Bill’s aims are well-intentioned but little or no heed has been paid to the fundamental interference with personal freedoms it represents. It was only tabled by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in April and with another humiliating retreat on the cards, it would be smart to pull the plug before it becomes a gift to the opposition.

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So my plan until 5pm on Thursday was to examine the Hate Crime Bill and other unfolding problems for Nicola Sturgeon, not least of which is the Scottish economy and the chance of anything like a meaningful recovery set back by the decision to delay the relaxation of restrictions on non-essential businesses until the middle of September. There is also what looks like a denial of responsibility for the decision to send elderly people into care homes with Covid-19, and the First Minister’s failure to give a proper response to this week’s shocking BBC Scotland investigation.

And until Thursday afternoon, the opposition would have been led by Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw who will no doubt be spending this weekend reflecting on what might have been after his sudden but dignified resignation, only six months after he was formally elected to the post.

In this column two weeks ago I reflected on criticism of the Scottish Conservative performance by anonymous Westminster party sources, which by inference blamed Jackson for not making more of the SNP’s record in government but which does not stand much scrutiny, especially as normal political rules were being shredded by Covid-19. It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Jackson to hit the ground running after eight years as Ruth Davidson’s deputy, including a widely praised stint as acting leader during her maternity leave, but the pandemic changed everything as the death toll and lockdown sucked the oxygen of publicity towards the First Minister. Even when his original magnanimous and initially well-judged support for the response eventually turned to attack it was an uphill struggle against an adept opponent with a tightly controlled daily platform.

By contrast, Sir Keir Starmer receives plaudits as the new opposition leader in Westminster, even though Labour is still well behind in the polls and he is following his party’s most useless leader, not its most successful. Sir Keir has five years to get his act together, but with an election barely a year away, time was a luxury Jackson could never enjoy.

At last October’s national party conference in Manchester, most Scottish delegates regarded Jackson as a solid caretaker until the real successor to Ruth won the leadership election and he would return to being the voice of the membership in the parliamentary party. But no obvious candidate emerged; those who considered it stepped back because they knew that in a vote of party members, Jackson’s years of charming his way round the rubber chicken circuit of association functions meant he would romp home, which he duly did. They also judged that putting up a stiff challenge which got nowhere could mean a return to the backbenches, precisely what happened to his only challenger, Michelle Ballantyne. There was no disguising her bitterness on Thursday night’s BBC.

At the turn of the year, the SNP was widely expected to implode after the Alex Salmond trial no matter the verdict, and if any Scottish party would be looking for a new leader it would be them. Instead the First Minister’s approval ratings soared, repeated polls showed the SNP and independence making advances and it was to Jackson’s great credit that he accepted it wasn’t working. But his successor has little time to make an impact, even less for bedding in, team building or strategy development, and none whatsoever for arguments. By the time the process is complete, the 2021 campaign will be on, so the Scottish party not only needs a new leader but an approach to 2021 and beyond which is all but ready to go.

Coincidence, perhaps, but the impending recruitment of a new director of communications in Scotland could have concentrated minds, because whoever fills the post will be central to the execution of the plan and, as the leader’s appointment, there needs to be an agreed plan to execute. Ruth Davidson went through two very dark years of political and personal pain before becoming an overnight success, and in my brief time in the communications job, the main plan was to pivot from opposing to embracing more devolution. It took months to organise before culminating with the appointment of the Strathclyde Commission to make the recommendations for the transfer of more power and paved the way for the Smith Commission a year later. It was a team effort, including Jackson, but it did not go down well with many of those members who had elected Ruth and had it been left to the membership it’s by no means certain the strategy would have been approved.

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Now Douglas Ross MP, who resigned Scotland Office post over Dominic Cummings’ lockdown journey to Durham, has confirmed his candidacy and Ruth will return to First Minister’s Questions until he comes back to Holyrood in May, which the list system virtually guarantees. With nominations closing on Wednesday it already looks like there will only be one candidate; it would be a brave MSP who decided he or she would be better at FMQs than Ruth ten months before the election.

One thing is clear, though, that with Ruth Davidson back at the heart of the action, the manner of Douglas Ross’s resignation set to one side and Michael Gove said to be fully engaged, London understands the future of the UK is at stake.

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