Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross yesterday reacted to the collapse in support for his party in last Thursday’s local elections by promising he’d win back those who’d abandoned them. He understood why former supporters had turned away. They were, Ross conceded, “rightly angry”.
Before issuing his pledge to those lost to the Tories, Ross’s spinners had made it clear that he blamed Boris Johnson for the party’s dismal showing on Thursday when it slipped into third place behind Labour.
And perhaps one might have managed a modicum of sympathy for Ross had he not compounded the Johnson problem through his own actions.
Two months after calling, in January, for the Prime Minister to go over the partygate scandal, Ross performed an entirely unnecessary U-turn and declared that war in Ukraine meant it was not time to change PM.
And with that still-baffling decision, Ross sealed the Scottish Tories’ fate.
Johnson’s most cynical acolytes - the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries - have used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a shield to protect their benefactor. But their argument that the conflict demands continuity in Downing Street doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The UK changed Prime Minister during the Second World War. And that was a conflict in which the nation was fully involved.
The argument that war in Ukraine means Johnson must be protected is no more credible when it’s made by Ross than when it’s made by Dorries.
Scottish Tories will hope that last week’s result represents a blip. Rather, I think, it represents the end of a Conservative rebirth started under the leadership of Ruth Davidson.
Davidson and her advisers performed something of a political miracle in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum. By seizing the mantle of defender of the Union and distancing herself - when she felt it prudent - from the Conservatives at Westminster. Davidson breathed life into a party that had previously seemed to be in perpetual decline. Labour, having suffered the indignity of defeat by the SNP found itself overtaken by the Tories. Ross inherited a party on the up.
Of course, Johnson was always going to present a problem for the Scottish Conservatives. He is precisely the sort of Tory - privileged, boorish, out of touch - who goes down like a drunk priest at a christening in Scotland.
With this is mind, Ross’s call for him to go over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street was not simply morally sound, it was politically wise.
Now, Ross looks a fool and some of his colleagues appear to have noticed.
On Friday morning, Scottish Tory finance spokesperson Liz Smith said Ross would “have to explain why he is defending [Johnson] as prime minister but blaming him for the result”. It was up to Ross to “explain the two sides of that coin”.
Yesterday, Ross tried - and failed miserably - to do just that.
The fact was, he said, that he supported the Prime Minister to lead the efforts of the UK government to back the people of Ukraine but this didn’t take away from the fact that voters in Scotland had been very clear they were unhappy with Johnson over the party gate scandal and his party had to listen to them.
He may “listen” but to what end when his position remains that Johnson must stay? Is he saying that voters who oppose Johnson are, simultaneously, both right and wrong to do so? It certainly seems his position is just as muddled as that.
Ross’s political problems are exacerbated by the fact that, under Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour is back on the pitch. After a decade of decline, Labour can afford to be cautiously optimistic about the future.
Interestingly, Sarwar has started to revive his party not - as the Tories once did - by focussing on the independence question but by talking about those bread-and-butter issues - heath, education, crime, employment - that are often forgotten amid the grind of the constitutional stand-off.
Sarwar has a way to go before Labour might be seen as a credible challenger to form a government at Holyrood but he will be pleased to have nudged the Tories aside.
Ross, yesterday, insisted that despite the loss of more than 60 councillors across Scotland, he was "in this for the long run”. If his colleagues are wise, they will not permit this.
The Scottish Tory leader will never escape from his catastrophically foolish decision to withdraw his call for Johnson to go. He is now and will forevermore be just another Conservative politician who sacrificed his credibility on the altar of Boris Johnson. Opponents will not let voters forget Ross’s flip-flopping over partygate. Douglas Ross has only himself blame for this. His wounds are entirely self-inflicted.
There is no obvious candidate in the current Tory group at Holyrood to succeed Ross but the party should find one quickly because he is a spent force.
We now await publication of civil servant Sue Grey’s report into Downing Street parties that took place while the rest of us observed strict coronavirus lockdown regulations. Will Ross continue to back the PM or is there a point at which he decides enough is enough?
And if he does decide that, after all, Johnson should go, will he be able to make that call without looking like he’s making it up as he goes along?
Douglas Ross said yesterday that he understood voters’ anger with Boris Johnson. I wonder when it will dawn on the Scottish Tory leader that those same people are now just as angry with him.