What a mess Douglas Ross has made for himself - Euan McColm

When Douglas Ross was elected - unopposed - as the new leader of the Scottish Conservative Party last month, he fired a warning shot across Boris Johnson’s bows. If the Prime Minister had got something wrong, said Ross, he would tell him so.

Douglas Ross backed the bill last week

Inevitably, the SNP had dismissed Moray MP Ross as Johnson’s “man in Scotland” and he was keen to prove them wrong, to show that he was in thrall to nobody.

And, give the man his due, he was as good as his word for the best part of six weeks. For a glorious month and a half, Ross was a model of independent thought.

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And then Johnson demanded Conservative MPs back his plan to break international law and Ross crumbled.

In word defiant, in deed supine, Ross backed the PM’s Internal Market Bill, a piece of legislation that takes a mallet to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated with the EU and then passed in the House of Commons.

Ross argued that he was acting to save Scottish jobs, though how this was so was not entirely clear. What was - and remains - clear was that Ross had thrown his support behind a wheeze which, if it comes to fruition, will show that the current UK Government cannot be trusted to live up to its obligations.

By supporting Johnson’s troubling plan to tear up an agreement which he had previously deemed essential, Ross looks weak. And that’s in a good light.

When the SNP dismissed Ross as “spineless”, it was hard to disagree.

When Tory Lord, Richard Keen, resigned as Advocate General for Scotland on the grounds that he “found it increasingly difficult to reconcile” his obligations as a lawyer with provisions in the Internal Market Bill, Ross looked weaker still.

What a mess Ross has made for himself.

When Ross was elected to replace Jackson Carlaw - ousted by the men in grey face-masks less than six months after he succeeded Ruth Davidson as Scottish Tory leader - his political priority was to minimise the damage the Johnson premiership will inflict on the Scottish Conservatives. A previous decision to resign as a Scotland Office minister over the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings’s flouting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions hinted that, maybe, here was a politician who understood how fragile the Scottish Tory rebirth is.

If, indeed, Ross does understand this, his actions are all the more baffling.

For a very long time, the Conservatives main opponents in Scotland - first Labour and then the SNP - made great play of the idea that the party was out-of-touch with voters, that it was distant and cold and cared little for Scotland. These political punches landed again and again.

Ruth Davidson’s great achievement was to successfully challenge this orthodoxy. Under her leadership, the Tories became contenders. No, she was never going to become First Minister, but she breathed life back into a party that had long been written off, north of the Border.

Davidson made a significant number of Scottish voters believe that her party had changed and that it understood - even shared - their concerns about the little Englanders who dominate the Conservatives at Westminster.

Brexit and the subsequent election of Boris Johnson - precisely the sort of privileged Tory that Scots find it easy to dislike - as PM represented a double setback to that project. Look, said the Nats, it’s the same old Tories, after all.

Even if Ross sincerely believed last week that voting for a course of action with which Lord Keen could not agree was the right thing to do, he got the politics seriously wrong.

The SNP is currently on course to win a fourth consecutive Holyrood election and polls now regularly show a small majority in favour of Scottish independence. In these circumstances, Ross cannot afford for a moment to look like the Prime Minister’s poodle. Both he and Johnson - if they truly wish to preserve the Union - must grasp this.

Last week, Ross should have rebelled not only for moral reasons but also for nakedly political ones. His vote was hardly crucial to the Government’s victory at this early stage of the Internal Market Bill and so he could comfortably have taken an opposing view. This would have seen off the charge that he is nothing more than a branch manager of a Tory Party hopelessly out of touch with Scots.

It is clear, I think, that too few members of the UK government have thought deeply about the threat the SNP poses to the maintenance of the United Kingdom. Yes, it is certainly true that the Prime Minister may - and, I think, will - withhold permission for the SNP to hold a second referendum but this is not a sustainable position. Every time Johnson says “no”, the SNP will point out that here is anther of the same old Tories telling Scots what they may and may not do. Always a tantalising line of attack, this is even more piquant when the same old Tory is Boris Johnson-shaped.

Douglas Ross voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. This put him on the side of the majority, a fact which he should have used to clearly define himself as independent of Boris Johnson. While Ross could hardly have set himself up as an opponent of the Prime Minister, on this issue he should have taken care to preserve his credibility.

That ship, I’m afraid, if now out at at sea and the waters are choppy.

The SNP can hardly be blamed for using Brexit to their advantage. This is a coo’s erse and banjo situation and the Nats would be failing in their political duty if they did not keep hitting that target. The reason they keep saying that Scots are being dragged out of Europe against their will is because it is true.

As a Unionist, it was always necessary for Ross to respect the outcome of 2016’s UK-wide vote. But he was under no obligation to support the breaking of International law in order to satisfy Boris Johnson.

When his opponents next accuse Douglas Ross of being the PM’s lapdog, voters may hear the ring of truth.