Russia’s war on Ukraine does not change Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office - Euan McColm

Until just a couple of weeks ago, few would have bet on the Prime Minister delivering a speech to this year’s Scottish Conservative Party conference.

As the partygate scandal swirled around Boris Johnson, threatening to end his time in 10 Downing Street, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was among the first elected members to call for his resignation. Ross submitted a letter, calling for a confidence vote, to the Conservatives’ 1922 committee and his fellow MSPs united behind him. So far as every Tory at Holyrood was concerned, Johnson was not fit for the office he holds.

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Perhaps you remember the Prime Minister’s beagle, Jacob Rees-Mogg, going out to fight on his boss’s behalf. Douglas Ross, he drawled, had always been something of a lightweight character.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the Scottish Conservative Party conference on March 18 in Aberdeen. Picture: Michal Wachucik/Getty ImagesPrime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the Scottish Conservative Party conference on March 18 in Aberdeen. Picture: Michal Wachucik/Getty Images
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the Scottish Conservative Party conference on March 18 in Aberdeen. Picture: Michal Wachucik/Getty Images
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And then Russia invaded Ukraine. Across the political spectrum, senior figures put partygate to one side. Quite rightly, they agreed that political focus should be on how the UK can help bring about an end to Russian President Vladimir Putin's atrocities.

Ross, agreeing with this view, then went a step too far. He withdrew his letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister. This foolish move completely undermined Ross’s moral position on partygate and I believe he will come to regret his decision, the upshot of which was that Johnson did address Scottish Tories on Friday.

Before that, Rees-Mogg spoke at the UK party’s spring conference in Blackpool where he told delegates war in Ukraine exposed the partygate scandal as “fluff”.

Rees-Mogg, as is so often the case, was wrong. The partygate scandal is not and has never been “fluff” and the devastating situation in Ukraine will not change that.

The matter of whether the Prime Minister broke the coronavirus lockdown rules which he had made law and then repeatedly lied about the matter is not the slightest bit trivial and if Rees-Mogg thinks voters will easily forget Johnson’s behaviour, he is wrong.

And that’s why Ross was wrong to withdraw his letter. It would have been perfectly possible for him to maintain the position that he understood the need for focus on Ukraine right now without withdrawing his letter to the 1922.

The partygate scandal is far from dead and buried. The results - whatever they may be - of an ongoing police investigation threaten to make life especially difficult for Johnson. If he is found to have broken lockdown rules and is fined, then voters - as polls have made clear - will expect him to go. But if he is cleared, Johnson should not expect this to be an end to the matter. Being cleared by the Metropolitan Police force, an utterly dysfunctional organisation, best known these days for a series of damaging scandals about the behaviour of its officers, would not be the bill of clean health Johnson might hope.

Rather, if the cops decide there should be no further action against Johnson, I’d expect the widely held view to be that the investigation was flawed. After all, we have seen the photographic evidence of the Prime Minister breaking lockdown laws and nothing will whitewash that memory. We are not zipped up the back.

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Back when Douglas Ross’s instincts on the PM’s suitability for office hadn’t gone all to hell, the idea that Johnson might address this year’s Scottish Tory conference was unthinkable. For a Scottish Tory leader keen to distance himself from a Prime Minister widely loathed by voters north of the border, this would have been no bad thing.

Instead, Ross crumbled and Johnson did his turn for the troublesome Jocks. The PM’s speech was bland and subdued.

Unsurprisingly, he began by talking about Ukraine and there was nothing to disagree with among his praise of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people he leads. And the generosity of people, the length and breadth of these islands, offering refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of the homeland gave Johnson lines which spoke to shared values of compassion.

What followed was little more than a checklist of subjects: some stuff on the SNP's short-sightedness on the UK’s natural energy resources, a bit about pandemic camaraderie and scientific innovation, and even a few lines of praise for Douglas Ross who has been successful, apparently, by being the “only political leader in Scotland to be saying loud and clear what is blindingly obvious to everyone - that this is not the moment to be having another referendum”.

I can see no benefit whatsoever to the Scottish Conservative cause of Johnson's speech on Friday. In fact, I see only downsides.

When Douglas Ross succeeded Jackson Carlaw as leader of the Scottish Tories, there was lots of spin from the party about his energy and appetite for the political fight. Of course, there was. But the truth is that Ross is a pretty lacklustre performer who, like his predecessor, cannot file the Ruth Davidson shaped gap in his party.

Principled - and, crucially, outspoken - criticism of Boris Johnson gave Ross the substance he had appeared to lack. By taking the position he did on the Prime Minister, Ross may have provoked the indignation of the ludicrous Jacob Rees-Mogg, but it did him no harm in Scotland where the Johnson premiership is taken very personally, indeed.

When the issue of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street returns, as it most certainly will, to the political agenda, what will Douglas Ross say? Will he argue against colleagues who maintain Boris Johnson is unfit for office, telling them that they are, in fact, wrong?

Russia’s war on Ukraine doesn’t change Johnson’s unfitness for office.

Douglas Ross has made a huge political miscalculation.



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