Scots Tory leadership frontrunner Jackson Carlaw says he is no “cheerleader” for Boris Johnson and will be his “own man” in dealings with the Prime Minister.
And he warns the SNP will finally have to face the judgment of Scots voters over the “failing” domestic record in schools, hospitals and the justice system in next year’s Holyrood election.
Carlaw is the overwhelming favourite to replace Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scots Tories in the current two-way leadership contest with the South of Scotland MSP Michelle Ballantyne.
Constitutional politics continues to dominate north of the Border, with the Prime Minister last week having rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Many observers predict next year’s Holyrood election in May could become a de facto “referendum on a referendum” with an SNP majority widely expected to make demands for a second vote on leaving the undeniable. This is also being ruled out by Downing Street, which has control over the constitution and Carlaw believes the Tory majority at Westminster will shift the dynamic of the debate in Scotland.
“The SNP came in [in 2007] when the Gordon Brown government was coming up to its end in the chaos of the recession. They then had a coalition government when there was an opportunity that could be exploited, they then had the small majority Conservative government and the minority Theresa May government.
“In all of that was an opportunity for the SNP to keep this issue alive. Only a few weeks ago they were talking about how they were going to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street in return for the power to hold a second referendum.
“That’s all gone. We now have a Conservative majority of 80 and five years of continuity.
“And when the Prime Minister says there won’t be another referendum in the immediate period ahead there won’t. So I think it will be interesting to see what the SNP do – beyond huffing and puffing now, what else is there for them to try and exert leverage?
“In that environment, we won’t spend as much of our time, frankly, focusing on the constitution because we know that it’s not going to happen. And our focus now will be on that domestic agenda.”
The NHS shortcomings which have seen the Royal Children’s hospital in Edinburgh delayed, an increase in violent crime and the flatlining economy are among the areas where the Tories will seek to focus their campaign.
But perhaps above it will be on education where concerns over standards in maths and science in the classrooms prompted a united opposition vote in parliament last week for a wide-ranging review.
“The overall position of Scottish education is one of decline and we can’t carry on like that,” Carlaw added.
It’s not clear how prominent a role the Prime Minister will play in next year’s election with Carlaw admitting that the UK party leader was a “difficult proposition.”
But the Eastwood MSP made it clear that he will be calling the shots on policy and direction north of the Border if he is successful.
“I’ve had that conversation with him and he appreciates and respects that,” Carlaw said of the party’s autonomy north of the Border.
“I’ve said to him ‘Look where I agree I will but there will be occasions, particularly in a devolved environment, where our view on a policy is different to yours.’
“It may be that our review of a policy leads to us taking some positions which are at odds with the position that is being implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom by a Conservative government.
“I’m perfectly comfortable with that. He’s perfectly comfortable with that.
“I’m not here to be a Boris cheerleader, I’m here to support and work with a Conservative government,.
“And incidentally, I think the prospect after 2021 of a Conservative minority government led here in Scotland with a majority government at Westminster – instead of those two governments fighting each other into a corner – two governments in partnership working to ensure Scotland makes a success of the post-Brexit environment will be hugely exciting.
“But I will always be my own man and the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party will always go its own way.”
The Tories became the main opposition party to the SNP at the last Holyrood vote in 2016 and Carlaw is confident that the party can go one step further and become the largest party next year, ousting the SNP from office.
He has already set out plans for tax cuts for Scots middle-earners, making £26,000-45,000, who pay more in tax than their counterparts elsewhere under Holyrood’s new income tax bands.
A sweeping review of policy will be carried out, although he is wary of blinding voters with “101 new policies” with such a short run-in before next year’s vote. But it is likely to mean outdated positions, such as the blanket opposition to free tuition at Scottish universities, will go.
“I want us to have a full working policy alternative government,” he said.
“Yes, we will have key messages that will be at the forefront of our campaign and I expect the constitutional message will still have to be, through conviction and reassurance to the public, a central one too.”
And as the UK prepares to exit the European Union at the end of the month, Carlaw is warning that the SNP must cease the “whingeing” and make the most of life outside the Brussels bloc.
“Scotland just can’t afford to watch the rest of the UK get on with meeting the challenges and seizing the opportunities while we stand back instead complaining, raising taxes higher than anywhere else and starving Scotland of the new investment that we need to get if we’re going to take full advantage of the new trade opportunities that are going to be created.”