Analysis: New Scots Tory leader gets fierce baptism in battle for the union

The dramatic changing of the guard at the helm of the Scotland's main opposition party over the past week reveals everything about the stark challenge facing the future of the union.

Douglas Ross is the new Scots Tory leader
Douglas Ross is the new Scots Tory leader

Jackson Carlaw's sudden departure as Tory leader was the consequence of consistent polling showing a clear, albeit slim, majority for independence among Scots. It's been a few years coming for Nationalists who have been anticipating such a shift with baited breath since the 2016 Brexit referendum when the weight of votes south of the border took the UK out of Europe - despite two-thirds of Scots voting to remain.

And so Douglas Ross has been installed as the man to fire up the pro-union torch in Scotland. It’s a daunting challenge for the new leader. The political agenda in Scotland is likely to be dominated by Coronavirus, the most pressing public health crisis of modern times, for the foreseeable future. Nicola Sturgeon is addressing the country live on television every day on latest developments in the battle against the virus and is widely deemed to be handling it with authority. The new Tory leader faces major challenge carving out a public profile for himself. This will be compounded by the fact that he will not be holding Ms Sturgeon to account when Parliament returns next week in the traditional focus of the Scottish political week - First Minister's Questions - which will instead be taken by former leader Ruth Davidson. A more substantial challenge for Ross will be to shift the political narrative away from the constitution and onto scrutiny of the SNP's domestic record. The row over grades awarded to Scots pupils this week in the absence of exams and recent stark figures showing Scotland's excess deaths during the Covid crisis have been among the worst in Europe point to areas where an effective opposition party should be holding the government of the day to account.

Mr Ross is an unknown quantity, but he faces a fierce baptism. Nationalists are already claiming his resignation as a Scotland Office minister back in May over the Dominic Cummings affair was a carefully calculated prelude to this leadership coronation - a ploy to show he is no Westminster lackey. It may seem like the stuff of far-fetched conspiracy theorists, but illustrates the unforgiving battleground Mr Ross now enters. When Ms Davidson took over as leader in 2011, she had a few rocky years to bed into the role, with the 2014 referendum campaign eventually proving the making of her as a leader. But a Holyrood election is just nine months away which polls suggest could deliver an SNP, or certainly a pro-independence, majority. Such an outcome would see demands for a second referendum become deafening, meaning Mr Ross does not have the same luxury of time. As the future of the union hangs in the balance, the stakes could not be higher for the new Tory leader.

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director

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