Douglas Ross interview: Boris Johnson 'fit for office' despite Partygate scandal

Douglas Ross has said he believes Boris Johnson is “fit for office”, despite calling for his resignation as Prime Minister in January.

It comes as the Scottish Conservative leader claimed he was optimistic the ongoing Partygate scandal would not see his party drop behind Scottish Labour into third place at next week’s local elections.

The Moray MP faced significant criticism from the opposition when he decided to withdraw his letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister following the invasion of Ukraine.

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Speaking exclusively to The Scotsman, Mr Ross defended his U-turn, saying despite Mr Johnson receiving a fine for breaking lockdown rules nothing had changed to convince the Scottish Tory leader to alter his position again.

The Scottish Tories leader reiterated his view the parties in Downing Street and the conduct of those taking part was “indefensible” and “cannot be accepted by everyone”.

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But asked for a yes or no answer on whether Mr Johnson was fit for office, Mr Ross said “Yes”, adding “because he is leading the UK response to this crisis at the moment”.

"But that doesn’t in any way diminish what he did and the actions that have been taken by those who investigate it,” Mr Ross said.

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Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has defended his decision to u-turn over Boris Johnson's conduct and Partygate.

"He is fit for office to continue with what the UK Government have done, his Government has done, to help the people of Ukraine.

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"That’s not just me saying it, that’s President [Volodymyr Zelensky] who singled out Boris Johnson as a Western leader who has provided some of the greatest support.

"That relationship I don’t believe should just be cut off immediately because clearly President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine welcome the support they’ve had from the Prime Minister and the UK Government.”

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Last week, the UK Government was forced into accepting a Labour motion in the House of Commons that demanded an investigation by the Privileges Committee into whether Mr Johnson knowingly misled the House of Commons around the scandal.

Such an action is considered a resignation matter under the ministerial code.

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Mr Ross said he hoped the inquiry would answer “lingering questions” around “what went on, why it happened and who is responsible".

He said he had made his feelings clear to Conservative whips in Parliament that any perception the Prime Minister was seeking to duck the scrutiny of Parliament would be “absolutely wrong”.

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Mr Ross also challenged the suggestion some voters viewed him as a hypocrite and as someone with damaged credibility due to his changing position on Mr Johnson.

He said: “Would it have been credible for me to have kept my letter in if at the same time I was saying ‘we have to be united in standing with the people of Ukraine’, in the same way that Keir Starmer said as the conflict started now wasn’t the time to replace the Prime Minister.

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"[SNP Westminster leader] Ian Blackford stood up in the House of Commons and called for unity.

"I agreed with them when they said that. I just haven’t seen anything to change my mind that has potentially changed theirs.”

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Asked whether the UK should be happy with accepting a lower standard of behaviour from those in government just due to the actions of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Mr Ross said the potential instability of a leadership challenge would undermine the response to the war in Ukraine.

“Whatever people say, there is instability created during a leadership election because allies that the Prime Minister and the UK Government have been working with knows that the person in Number 10 will not be there in a matter of month’s time,” he said.

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"That doesn’t help get swift and crucial decisions taken and agreement elsewhere.”

Mr Ross added: “A global situation where two sovereign European nations are at war with each other does change things and changes things dramatically.”

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The Moray MP went on to compare the fine received by Mr Johnson with the £300 penalty received by Humza Yousaf in 2016 after the-then transport secretary was found by police to be driving a friend’s car uninsured.

“I don’t remember anyone saying at that point, certainly within the SNP, that they should get rid of their transport minister”, the Scottish Conservative leader said.

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Asked whether he agreed voters would consider the comparison a false equivocation, Mr Ross said: “Yeah, but I make it as a point that this is not the first time a member of the government has received a fine for breaking the law.

"When it has happened in the past, and Humza Yousaf was one of the most vocal people calling for the Prime Minister to go, he didn’t think his misdemeanour was so great, despite being transport minister.”

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Mr Ross said the decision by Police Scotland to not issue Nicola Sturgeon with a fine for failing to wear a face mask raised questions about the consistency of police approaches to lockdown regulations. But he fell short of saying he would have called for the First Minister’s resignation had she been fined.

Asked what would be a resigning matter for him in terms of the Prime Minister’s potential further lockdown breaches, Mr Ross said he would not comment on a hypothetical, adding he had always commented based on the information he had in front of him at the time.

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Rejecting the idea that he took a gamble with calling for Mr Johnson’s resignation, he said his initial decision to demand the Prime Minister go was made because it was the one he was “most comfortable with”.

Mr Ross also maintained that he still retains the confidence of his MSP group and wider party despite the U-turn around Partygate.

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Despite his initial calls for Mr Johnson’s resignation, the Scottish Tory leader has faced a difficult time in the polls.

His favourability has dropped to the lowest of the main Holyrood party leaders – 21 points behind Anas Sarwar and 36 points behind Nicola Sturgeon.

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The party has also dropped to third in the polls behind Scottish Labour, but Mr Ross is bullish about his party’s chances in the local elections.

The SNP’s weakness is that it has “no new ideas”, the leader said, pointing to similarities between the local election manifesto this year and the Holyrood election 12 months ago.

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Claiming that it was “cut and paste”, Mr Ross said the SNP has “no new vision” and “nothing to say” on key issues such as education.

Asked whether he was confident the Conservatives would finish second, he said he was “really optimistic” that would come to pass.

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Challenged on whether that meant he was tacitly accepting third place would be a failure, he said: “I am absolutely committed to delivering the best possible result for the Scottish Conservatives and I am very optimistic about our chances a week out.”

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

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It's available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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