Scottish Conservatives: Talk of a velvet divorce from Boris Johnson's party leaves Douglas Ross stuck between a rock and a hard place – Martyn McLaughlin
There can surely be no better time than the first week of a new year to acknowledge that some resolutions are doomed to failure from the off.
In the case of the Scottish Conservatives, the calls for a hard reset and launch of a new electoral entity, one separate and distinct from the UK party, risks becoming as commonplace as promises to chuck the fags, learn the piano, or run a marathon.
The latest instalment of this emerging tradition has come from Peter Duncan, the former MP and chair of the party in Scotland. Amid well-founded fears of a trouncing in this year’s local elections, the Tory grandee believes that only a split from the full-fat Conservative and Unionist Party can avert catastrophe.
In what he proposes as a “fundamental re-alignment of the centre and centre-right” in Scottish politics, Mr Duncan is calling for “independence for the Scottish Conservatives”. He does so apparently without irony, and an insistence that there is growing support for the idea across the party.
On the latter point, he may be right. After equalling its best performance at a Holyrood last year, these are inauspicious times for the Tories in Scotland. The SNP is on track to increase its representation at local authority level come May, and the Tory share of Westminster voting intention is at the lowest level of any Scottish poll since 2015.
Were a general election to be held tomorrow, it would require a brave gambler to take a punt against the Conservatives losing all six of their seats north of the Border, including the one held by its leader, Douglas Ross.
In Mr Duncan’s estimations, the blame for all this can be laid squarely at the door of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “The continuing chaos in Downing Street is holding back Scottish Tory prospects and will put at risk good, hard-working Scottish Conservative councillors and MSPs unless something changes,” he wrote at the weekend.
“I have long supported a more grown-up arrangement whereby the party in Scotland owns its future more clearly, but autumn's events at Westminster have made that outcome much more likely.”
It is perhaps a measure of just how distant the prospects are of the Scottish Conservatives ever forming a government that this debate is almost as old as devolution itself. The idea of a so-called velvet divorce has been flirted with by David Cameron, Murdo Fraser, and most recently, Adam Tomkins, who, with characteristic modesty, suggested the new party could be called Enlightenment.
Such soul-searching spasms and rallying calls for greater autonomy and distinctiveness have become routine, with the party muddling its way through each episode without ever quite resolving the issues at hand.
Those advocating change breezily dismiss the practical difficulties of setting up a new entity, not least when it comes to raising an electoral war chest. One would have thought Mr Duncan would be more cognisant than most of such concerns.
After all, he resigned as a trustee of the Scottish Unionist Association Trust in 2018 amid a slew of allegations around “dark money” used to finance Tory election campaigns. The following year, the unincorporated association was fined by the Electoral Commission for donation breaches.
But more troublingly for the Tories, the debate never engages with the question of why the calls for a new party crop up so often. The answer to that, I would suggest, is because the Scottish Conservatives are more like their Westminster colleagues than they would care to admit.
Mr Duncan and others may rail against the endless procession of scandals surrounding the UK government, but that conveniently ignores the impact Conservative politics in the age of Brexit has had north of the Border.
There has been a coarsening of the party’s discourse in recent years, best exemplified by Mr Ross himself, who grows increasingly abrasive and irascible, especially when contrasted with the golf club bonhomie of his predecessor, Jackson Carlaw.
It may be the legacy of Mr Ross’s time at Westminster, or it may be a persona cultivated in the belief that it exudes strength. Either way, such hectoring has has lent a bitter taste, and masked his unfulfilled promise to tackle “bread and butter” issues.
Save for the occasional divergence from UK government policy, such as his support for drug consumption rooms, Mr Ross has not done enough to set out a distinct vision for his party in Scotland.
Under his stewardship, its constitutional stance has soured and hardened, to the point that it is now indistinguishable from dogma. His is the party which emphatically says no, but has little else to add to the conversation.
Which may be why Mr Ross will reject out of hand all and any calls for a new beginning in Scotland. He may have been increasingly vocal in his criticism of Mr Johnson, especially after the Downing Street Christmas party revelations, but cutting ties with the UK party is fraught with danger for a leader who continues to straddle two parliaments, and whose only grand idea appears to be opposing a second independence referendum at any cost.
For all that a formal split would unshackle the conservative movement in Scotland from the folly and absurdities of Mr Johnson and his ilk, it would constitute a wholesale rejection of the fundamentals of unionism. If the Tories decide things are not necessarily better together, how can they expect to convince the electorate otherwise?
I suspect Mr Ross realises this. The problem he faces, however, is that he does not know how to break the deadlock which further hinders his party’s fading hopes of becoming a credible choice of government. Some 17 months to the day since he became leader, he seems no less sure of what Scottish conservatism is, or what it should become. He may not favour Mr Duncan’s idea, but as a new year ushers in a new chapter, Mr Ross must know how the same old story ends.
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