Leadership fight puts fortunes of Scots Tories on a knife edge

Victory for Gove would make life very difficult for Scottish Conservative MSPs.  Picture: Carl Court/Getty
Victory for Gove would make life very difficult for Scottish Conservative MSPs. Picture: Carl Court/Getty
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CONSERVATIVES MSPs were relieved to see the back of Boris, but they find other candidates in the race to succeed David Cameron equally scary, writes Euan McColm

THE sense of relief was overwhelming. The team that helped Ruth Davidson lead the Scottish Conservatives back from the brink of extinction and into second place in May’s Holyrood election had been preparing themselves for the worst. Boris Johnson – that seemingly unstoppable force – had been the key figure in the Leave campaign’s victory in the EU referendum. And now he was the clear favourite to become the next Prime Minister of the UK.

Michael is very Scottish Presbyterian when it comes to his work ethic. Boris is slapdash and careless and only really puts in the effort when he gets to be the centre of attention

The media had been briefed that Johnson and his fellow Tory Brexiteer, Michael Gove, would be forming a “dream ticket”, offices had been booked and a campaign team assembled. The old political truism about favourites rarely winning leadership contests was about to be shattered.

And then, in a week of astonishing twists and turns in UK politics, came news that Gove had stabbed his colleague in the back, and then the front, and then the back again. On Thursday morning, just a few hours before both men were due to appear in front of supporters and the media, Gove announced he had formed the opinion that Johnson did not have the qualities required to lead the Conservative Party or the country.

The Secretary of State for Justice’s decision to run for the leadership while trashing the former mayor of London’s reputation changed the game completely. Shortly before noon, Johnson arrived at the venue where he was expected to announce his leadership, made a serviceable speech about the state of the nation, then declared he had concluded that he was not the man to unite his party.

A Scottish Tory party source revealed that the reaction in Edinburgh to the news was unequivocal.

“If Boris had become PM, we’d have been f*****. All Ruth’s work would have be wasted.

“Scots would not have accepted Boris as PM. He would have been poison for us. His decision to give up was very good news indeed.”

In political circles, Davidson’s disdain for Johnson has been well known for some time. After his decision not to run, she made her feelings public with a response that dripped with contempt for the MP.

“It’s not for everyone,” she said, “Some people just haven’t got it. Maybe he’s one of them.”

As Tory members processed this brutal evisceration of alpha Johnson by the decidedly beta Gove, conspiracy theories emerged: Gove had discovered a dark secret about Johnson; Gove had been planning this for months; Johnson had overruled Gove’s suggestions about key appointments.

One explanation put forward was that Gove – who, despite opposing him during the referendum campaign that led to the end of his premiership, still has a relationship (admittedly fragile) with David Cameron – had only ever been interested, since the result of the vote was announced, in ending Johnson’s career.

One party source who subscribes to that view said: “Michael and his wife [the journalist Sarah Vine] have been friends with the Camerons for a long time and the referendum hasn’t completely destroyed that.

“Boris and the PM have never been mates and it makes sense to me that Michael would have done this to prevent Boris from winning the leadership. It makes sense to me that this was an act of loyalty from an old pal. Michael is never going to be prime minister but at least now neither is Boris.”

That particularly theory doesn’t ring true with a source close to Davidson, who has seen both men in campaigning action.

“Boris has energy when it’s all about Boris. Michael will have seen him up close during the campaign, when they were in the bunker together and thought this was a guy with energy and a work ethic. But when it comes to detail, Boris is incredibly lazy. He’s not a hard worker, he’s not dedicated.

“What’s happened here is that in the days after the referendum result, Michael will have seen the real Boris and it will have appalled him.

“Michael is very Scottish Presbyterian when it comes to his work ethic. Boris is slapdash and careless and only really puts in the effort when he gets to be the centre of attention. The scales fell from Michael’s eyes once they were trying to sort out details. It’s as simple as that.”

It is hard to see how Johnson’s political career recovers from the events of the past few weeks. His decision to join the Leave campaign flew in the face of his past pro-European pronouncements and appeared to be about advancing his prospects of becoming prime minister rather than about principle.

Gove, too, is damaged goods. As one party source said: “A certain type of Tory might like bastards but Gove has gone too far. This was proper treachery. He is the wrong kind of bastard.”

But even those who hold that view of him concede that, at least, his belief that the UK should leave the EU was real.

“It’s perfectly conceivable that Michael could end up back in government,” said one senior figure. “He’s not going to be leader but he could get a decent department. He’s cleverer than most so why wouldn’t the next prime minister want him doing something useful?”

Now Home Secretary Theresa May – who supported the Remain side during the referendum campaign but did so without stepping up to the front line of battle – is favourite to succeed David Cameron. She faces not only Gove, but work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb, energy minister Andrea Leadsom, and former defence secretary Liam Fox in the battle to become prime minister.

Under the Conservative Party’s rules, there will be ballots for MPs on Tuesdays and Thursdays – starting this week – with the candidates receiving the lowest support being knocked out until two remain. The wider party membership will then choose between these two candidates.

The smart money among MPs and MSPs is that the final two will be May and Brexiteer Leadsom.

One MP said: “Fox will carry on his tradition of getting nowhere in these things by getting knocked out first. I don’t know why he bothers, to be honest, because it’s not like he’s a young, rising star and the new leader will be compelled to give him a job. He’ll just get knocked out and that’s that.

“I’d expect Gove to fall next and Crabb to drop out after that.

“This should be good for Crabb. He’s fairly unknown right now but he has a bright future. In 10 years, he’ll be the man to beat for the top job and he’s right to set down a marker now.”

Tory MSPs are wary about publicly declaring support for a particular candidate, right now, after a partisan intervention in the last leadership election soured relations with David Cameron’s team.

A source explained: “There was a Scottish hustings in 2005 when David Davis and David Cameron were fighting for the job and Jackson Carlaw [now deputy leader of the Scottish Tories] made it clear he was in favour of Davis.

“When Cameron won, it meant the Scottish party and him got off to a bad start. We can’t have that happening again.”

Davidson will have more power than any of her predecessors had in previous elections to choose a new leader of the UK party. When Cameron won in 2005, Scottish Conservatives made up just one in 30 of the UK membership, but now, with more than 11,000 members, the Scottish party is far more powerful.

A source close to Davidson said that, between them, she and Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, could be expected to influence the votes of as many as three-quarters of Scottish party members. That Davidson was a staunch Remainer during the referendum and Mundell was first to congratulate May with a kiss after she launched her leadership bid on Thursday morning might give clues to how both might use their influence.

But the growing assumption that May is now unstoppable may yet be proved wrong. Leadsom, still a relatively obscure figure among the wider public, stepped out of the shadows to play a central role in the referendum campaign. She stood alongside Boris Johnson in two major, televised debates and, with him out of the running, there is a large constituency of Eurosceptic party members which will be open to the possibility of her stepping up.

Leadsom has already stated that she believes the next Conservative leader should be someone who backed the UK’s departure from the EU, and while that may have a well-she-would-say-that quality to it, it’s a message that will surely resonate with many members, especially older ones for whom Europe has been a consuming issue for decades.

It might be tempting to rule out Leadsom because of her obscurity but Cameron’s relatively low profile didn’t do him any harm in 2005. In fact, it worked positively in his favour.

Yesterday, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said he had “huge confidence” in Leadsom’s qualities, praising her “ability to achieve objectives even against considerable odds”.

He said: “I believe that Andrea’s strong family background, business experience, compassion, commitment to social justice and dedication will make her a great prime minister for the UK.”

Davidson, who has created a modern, centrist Scottish Tory Party will shudder at the prospect of Duncan Smith having his way.

One Scottish Party source said: “Boris would have been a disaster for us, but no Leave campaigner would be anything but harmful.

“Scots voted to remain and Ruth played a big part in delivering that. The last thing we want is a bloody Eurosceptic in Downing Street. It’s been a tough job rebuilding the party in Scotland. We can’t afford to have a new PM who’s completely out of step with Scottish public opinion on Europe. We just can’t.”