'I'm not weak': Douglas Ross rubbishes leadership challenges within Scottish Conservative party

Douglas Ross has dismissed the idea his colleagues are plotting to replace him as leader of the Scottish Conservatives as he challenged his internal opponents to stop hiding behind “anonymous briefings”.

The comments come after Nicola Sturgeon used First Minister’s Questions on Thursday to reference reports there are two separate groups of Scottish Tory MSPs scheming to replace Mr Ross as leader, teasing the Moray MP he was only leader of his party “for now”.

Speaking exclusively to The Scotsman, Mr Ross said he would not have been able to support the mooted return of Boris Johnson following the resignation of Liz Truss, and backed the controversial appointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary by the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

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Leader of the Scottish Conservatives since he took over from Jackson Carlaw in the summer of 2020, Mr Ross is well-versed with how manoeuvres within political parties can unseat a leader.

His predecessor was the victim of a plot by senior figures in the party concerned about the future of the Union. That plot resulted in Mr Ross, the preferred successor of previous leader Ruth Davidson, taking the leadership unopposed.

In recent months, following a series of embarrassing U-turns around Mr Johnson’s conduct as prime minister and calling for the Scottish Government to follow the wide-ranging tax cuts which were later dumped during the brief chaos of the Truss era, Mr Ross has faced increasing pressure from internal party opponents. The Scottish Tory poll numbers also plunged to depths not seen for almost a decade, with Westminster election projections suggesting a complete wipe-out for the party north of the Tweed.

Mr Ross rejected the suggestion the figures were irrecoverable, saying they instead represented a “snapshot of people’s opinion”. He pointed to the 2021 Holyrood election result where the party retained second place in Scotland.

Asked if he still considered himself safe as leader, Mr Ross simply said “yes” and denied he was weak. “There are always challenges leading a political party,” he said. “I don't think anyone can get away from that. But we've shown in 2021 under my leadership we delivered the best ever election result we've had in Scotland since devolution.”

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has defended his position as leader.

Challenging his internal opponents to have the conversation with him face-to-face about his future, Mr Ross criticised them for “anonymous briefings” to newspapers. He also pointed to the work being done on private members’ bills such as the Proposed Removal from Office and Recall Bill by Graham Simpson and Pam Gosal’s domestic abuse Bill.

“I think you always hear rumours,” Mr Ross said. “I'd be very happy to speak to people face to face, but so long as journalists keep writing anonymous sources up in stories then people will still be willing to give those comments. But I'll always put my name to it and the comments I’m putting my name to is I'm determined to continue to challenge this failing SNP Government who have let Scotland down for 15 years.

"If you speak to the colleagues who aren’t making these anonymous briefings, there’s a number of MSPs who are really disappointed that that's the story that gets focused on in the papers when the story should be what we're doing with alternative legislation. There are so many other areas we are focusing on, putting forward a credible alternative to the SNP, who are out of ideas. They have no fresh plans or vision to deal with the challenges facing Scotland.”

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Mr Ross also rejected suggestions he does not consult widely enough for advice, saying he engages “extensively” with members. Urging his party to unite behind both him and the new Prime Minister, the MSP said he agreed with those same calls from Mr Sunak. “We need to unite as a party, right across the country and focus all our attention on delivering for people where we are in government and scrutinising for people where we are in opposition,” he said.

The prospect of a Johnson return may have been a step too far for Mr Ross, who quit as a junior minister over the conduct of former PM senior aide Dominic Cummings during the Covid-19 lockdown. Travelling from Wick, Mr Ross said his “gut reaction” was the former prime minister would not stand. “It certainly looked like I was going to be proven wrong over the weekend,” he said. “But I always felt it would be the wrong decision.”

The Scottish Tory leader has stayed tight-lipped over who he backed for the leadership during both contests this year, but he appears much more comfortable backing Mr Sunak than Ms Truss. Mr Sunak, who also received a fixed penalty notice for partying in Number 10 during lockdown, had simply “turned up early for the meeting” where “others were serving juice and cake”, Mr Ross said.

He added: “I don't think [health secretary] Humza Yousaf can't be a minister in the Scottish Government because he drove without insurance. I don’t think Harriet Harman can’t lead the standards committee despite receiving a FPN [for speeding]. [These cases are] totally different [to parties during a pandemic], but they are still fixed penalty notices.”

This willingness to defend the new Prime Minister extends to the re-appointment of Ms Braverman as home secretary just a week after she resigned for breaching the ministerial code – a mistake described by Mr Ross when discussing Nicola Sturgeon’s future during the Alex Salmond inquiry as a “red card offence”. "I know some people are not happy with that,” he said. “But appointments to the Cabinet, the shadow cabinet, to party positions are the responsibility of the respective leaders.”

Rejecting accusations Ms Braverman was rewarded for a grubby deal with Mr Sunak, the Moray MP said leaders were “right to appoint whoever they believe”.

There also remains the matter of a £50 bet between him and Ms Sturgeon on who will quit first prior to the next Holyrood election. Asked whether he was still confident he would win that bet, Mr Ross said “Yes, I am.” The question is whether internal Tory critics are also so sure of those odds.

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