Analysis

Douglas Ross's decision to quit abandon the Scottish Tory ship had become inevitable - but what happens next?

Douglas Ross ending his leadership of the Scottish Conservatives had become inevitable.

The future of the Scottish Conservatives has been thrown wide open after Douglas Ross announced he will quit as leader of the Scottish Conservatives after next month’s general election – a move that had become all, but inevitable.

The Scottish Tory leader has been under immense pressure after David Duguid was de-selected to fight the new Aberdeenshire North and Moray East seat one day before nominations shut. On its own this would have raised eyebrows, but Mr Ross was adamant he was the only one who could come forward to stand for the Westminster seat, despite pledging to step away from the House of Commons to focus on Holyrood.

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Douglas Ross speaks with media after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesDouglas Ross speaks with media after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Douglas Ross speaks with media after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Ironically, Mr Ross will quit Holyrood altogether if he wins a Westminster seat – so he can give it his “complete focus and attention". That must be quite a kick in the teeth to those MPS he had vowed to give his focus on.

The Duguid fiasco is seen by several backbench Tory MSPs as a episode the party did not need. Much like the downfall of Humza Yousaf, sparked by a miscalculation to tear up the Bute House Agreement, Mr Ross’s poor decision has meant there was no option but to end his leadership.

Mr Ross’s decision to call time on his leadership had become an inevitability even before reports at the weekend raised big questions about his use of expenses. His backbenchers had seen enough – one told me last week’s events showed “a worrying lack of judgement”.

The Scottish Tories are crying out for focus and attention at Holyrood – and Mr Ross has made quite clear it is no longer his priority. That has irritated many of his MSPs – who will have been looking to him to focus on the Scottish Parliament an some sort of strategy to help things improve. Polling suggests the party will slip significantly behind both the SNP and Labour at the next Holyrood election in 2026.

Douglas Ross is seen after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesDouglas Ross is seen after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Douglas Ross is seen after he announced he will resign as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As the SNP are finding out, a focus on independence as a priority over other key issues can be a huge turnoff for voters. As LibDems leader Alex Cole-Hamilton put to Mr Ross at the STV leaders debate last week, many feel independence “is your only issue”. There’s an argument to be made that a focus on separation being damaging to the SNP when the public care about more pressing matters, can also be done to the Tories on the other side of the debate.

Mr Ross, if he wins the Westminster seat, would see that as an escape route from Holyrood. He has failed to push the Tories forward in any meaningful way. He was very much saved by the Tories having a decent election in 2021 – but with the surge from Anas Sarwar’s revived Labour, Mr Ross was staring a mediocre 2026 election in the face. That will now be someone else’s problem.

In his statement, Mr Ross highlighted he has “served as MP, MSP and leader for over three years now and believed I could continue to do so if re-elected to Westminster”, but stressed that “on reflection, that is not feasible”.

The Scottish Tories now face a leadership contest hanging over the party during a crucial election campaign and there is no obvious successor to Mr Ross.

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Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

Deputy leader Meghan Gallacher has been talked about as a replacement, but others in the party do not appear to rate her. The party’s justice spokesman Russell Findlay is another name touted as a future leader, but there is concern his is more effective sticking to his area of expertise.

It’s unlikely we’ll get many sticking their head up and launching their leadership bid in the middle of an election campaign.

Mr Ross faced a very uncomfortable STV leaders debate last week, before the de-selection of his colleague and his intention to forge a path back to Westminster unfolded. He was forced to admit he got it wrong over backing Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget – a strategy he called on the Scottish Government to implement north of the Border. Worryingly, he said he assumed Treasury officials would have done the maths.

He was also put on the spotlight over his support for a number of top Tories at Westminster – something he was comfortable doing. Even less comfortable was the pasting Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes gave him at FMQs after he had the gall to bring up the North East hours after confirming he was replacing Mr Duguid.

So far, the election campaign had been pretty boring for the Scottish Tories – and that was a good thing. The attention has been all about the tussle between the SNP and Labour – with polling suggesting despite the drop in support across the UK, the Scottish Tories would do okay on July 4.

Scottish politics has been wild over the last couple of months. Mr Ross has been very keen to take credit for ending Mr Yousaf’s stint as first minister. His proposed motion of no confidence won support of the Greens who ultimately have him no choice but ti quit.

The Tories’s election campaign, so far, has been an obsession with Michael Matheson quitting as an MSP and claiming that only the Conservatives can oust the SNP is a handful of marginal seats across Scotland. Maybe the party’s manifesto, when we see it, will change all that – but it has not exactly been inspiring stuff so far.

The Scottish Tories had been plodding along quietly looking to hold onto their seats while their colleagues south of the Border were facing oblivion. It is now clear that the Scottish Tories are now in full crisis mode and the captain has abandoned the ship.

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