Euan McColm: Jackson Carlaw's turn to deal with Tories' usual suspects

The Scottish party leader's deputy steps forward at a critical time for maintaining the tolerant, progressive image fostered by Ruth Davidson, writes Euan McColm.
Jackson Carlaw has proved surprisingly liberal on social issues since he was appointed by Ruth Davidson. Picture: 
Lisa FergusonJackson Carlaw has proved surprisingly liberal on social issues since he was appointed by Ruth Davidson. Picture: 
Lisa Ferguson
Jackson Carlaw has proved surprisingly liberal on social issues since he was appointed by Ruth Davidson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Opponents and members of the public (the usual contemptible exceptions who cannot bloody help themselves aside) were full of warm words, bombarding Davidson on social media with their congratulations.

“Many congratulations to you both,” tweeted First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, “I wish wee Finn a lifetime of happiness.”

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For this rare moment of happy comradeship in these rancorous times, young Finn, we are in your debt.

The day before Davidson gave birth, her deputy, Jackson Carlaw, participated in his first session of First Minister’s Question Time as acting leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. The broad consensus was that he acquitted himself well enough, asking a question about the use of vaginal mesh implants that had Nicola Sturgeon agreeing to look at whether blue-badge parking permits might be made available to women affected by their use.

But one decent FMQs does not a leader make. For several months to come, the sideman will take centre-stage at a critical moment for his party and it is how he responds that will give us the measure of the man.

With Brexit chaos ongoing and the ever present threat of a second referendum, Carlaw has busy times ahead. Until now, a fairly obscure figure, his profile is about to soar.

The big question is whether he can sustain – and even build – on the momentum Davidson has created since taking over leadership of her party seven years ago.

Davidson’s decision to appoint Carlaw as her deputy was greeted with surprise. She was on a mission to detoxify the Scottish Conservatives, not just rebranding but refocusing the party, and he seemed to epitomise the sort of Tory Davidson was keen to erase from memory. A privately educated former chairman of the Young Tories whose stomping ground was the affluent Eastwood constituency south of Glasgow, Carlaw was decidedly old school when compared with his boss.

The Tory spin at the time went that Carlaw had a connection with the party’s grassroots that would be invaluable to Davidson, then a johnny-come-lately who’d been in the party just a few years.

A sceptic might have listened to this version of events then looked at the Scottish Tories’ Holyrood group and concluded that – no offence to Carlaw – Davidson’s decision had been shaped by her lack of choice.

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Carlaw, it turned out, was not quite the old-fashioned right-wing Tory of caricature (though, having been a local newspaper reporter three decades back when Carlaw was chairman of the Eastwood Tories, I would contend that he once filled out that suit very well).

Surprisingly socially liberal and focusing on issues one might not have expected – the mesh implants scandal being an excellent example – Carlaw might still have looked the part of the ruddy-faced Tory boy, but it turned out he was more in tune with Davidson than had been suspected. One Tory source says that Carlaw had been uncomfortable with his party’s social illiberalism under previous leaders for some time.

“You might not have looked at Ruth and Jackson and seen very much in common between them,” says one colleague. “In fact, I’m not even sure that Ruth saw it, but it turns out that on the big equality issues like gay marriage, he’s absolutely passionately in favour.”

But if Carlaw is a more modern Conservative than a first glance might have suggested, the party’s transformation is far from complete.

During a debate on inequality at Holyrood last week, Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne declared “fair” the idea that people on benefits could not simply have as many children as they wished.

Ballantyne’s remarks revealed the sort of mean-spirited view of those struggling at the bottom of society that would have been considered too extreme for a 1980s Thatcherite city trader in all his coked-up pomp.

Carlaw – privately seething about Ballantyne’s remarks (the idea the state could dictate how many kids you’re allowed to have is about as un-Tory as you can get,” one Conservative MSP told me) – was swift to issue a statement in which he described his colleague’s words as clumsy and implied that knuckles had been rapped.

Beyond Holyrood, Scottish Tory MP Ross Thomson and three others – a third of the Scottish Conservatives at Westminster – have aligned themselves with MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s right-wing European Research Group, placing themselves at the deeply unappealing No Deal end of the Brexiteer spectrum.

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With his rising profile, Thomson has the power to seriously tarnish the Davidson brand. He is the sort of Tory loathed by central belt Scots (and I’m sorry, rural Tories, but if you want to win power, you need those voters on board). How Carlaw keeps the right of the Scottish Tories in check has yet to be seen, but make no mistake, tensions now exist between the acting leader and a number of those who follow him.

Until now, the rise of the Scottish Tories has been greatly aided by the existence of the independence question. Yes, Davidson is a skilled politician with a likeable presence but it was her clear opposition to a second referendum that gave the Tories fuel in the most recent Holyrood and Westminster elections.

The Scottish Conservatives have wrung a lot out of this position, but if the party is serious about winning the next Holyrood election (and this remains, in my opinion, the longest of long shots) it will have to do more than stand against something.

Davidson’s Tory Party is policy light. We know what they wouldn’t do in power (hold a referendum on independence) but it’s not at all clear what they would do.

So, an easy few months ahead for Jackson Carlaw. All he has to do is keep in check his party’s Brexit extremists, ensure the half-wits among the Tory ranks at Holyrood don’t speak their minds about anything, and come up with a policy agenda fit to topple Nicola Sturgeon.

That should be a breeze, shouldn’t it?