Analysis

Why has Douglas Ross decided to stand, replacing David Duguid, in 'gift' for SNP and Labour?

Mr Ross announced he was standing on Thursday.

The optics of Douglas Ross’s decision to stand at the general election may have been damaging in the short term, but it is the lingering questions it will leave about his future in the Scottish Parliament that could ultimately prove the biggest headache for the Scottish Tories leader.

Mr Ross was supposed to be standing down from Westminster at this election to concentrate on his job as an MSP ahead of the 2026 Holyrood election campaign.

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But the last-minute decision to deselect former UK government minister David Duguid, in hospital in ill health, as the Tory candidate in Aberdeenshire North and Moray East, with Mr Ross taking his place, has created baggage that will be thrown at the party throughout this election campaign – and beyond.

For the SNP and Labour, this is a gift. The SNP have been able to label this a day of “shame for the Tories” and repeat attack lines about Mr Ross having three-jobs and a “third salary”. This comes despite Mr Ross donating his entire Holyrood wage to charity. SNP campaign director Stewart Hosie declared the "nasty party just got nastier".

Labour were also quick to criticise. Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said “this screeching U-turn shows there is no promise flip-flop Ross won’t break”. She added the people of “Highlands and Islands deserve better than a part-time MSP”.

There is no doubt the optics of this are appalling, especially with Mr Duguid saying he wanted to run again, and only this this week expressing his excitement to do so in the campaign, even if that didn't mean knocking on doors.

However, while there is extensive criticism of Mr Ross from opposition parties, it’s worth noting the jibes over his multiple jobs or attempts to associate him with the conduct of Downing Street have never cut through, not really.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross speaks during the official launch of his party's general election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA WireScottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross speaks during the official launch of his party's general election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross speaks during the official launch of his party's general election campaign at the Royal George Hotel in Perth. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Mr Ross is a canny political operator and one who has consistently defied the odds and the polls, and the Tory party is well aware of that.

In the face of a charismatic Anas Sarwar-led Scottish Labour at the previous Scottish Holyrood election, the Scottish Tory was consistently mocked for poor performance at the debates and running a flat campaign. The Scottish Tories came second.

Calling for Boris Johnson to resign over ‘Partygate’, there was a view in the party that Mr Ross would have to stand down over it, with his criticism so severe, the pair could not co-exist. But Mr Ross's decision paid off and Mr Johnson resigned in disgrace.

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Speaking to Scottish Tory MPs and other figures on Thursday, there was huge sympathy for Mr Duguid, but also a strong belief that Mr Ross had to stand.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during a press conference in Edinburgh, where he confirmed his intention to stand at the General Election despite initially planning to stand down.Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during a press conference in Edinburgh, where he confirmed his intention to stand at the General Election despite initially planning to stand down.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during a press conference in Edinburgh, where he confirmed his intention to stand at the General Election despite initially planning to stand down.

One MP suggested the pressure of running was going to be too much for Mr Duguid, and Mr Ross was the logical solution because he had already been an MP for a third of the new constituency. “He's running because with four weeks to go, he is person best placed to win the seat,” the MP said.

Others said it was good to keep Mr Ross in Westminster, but also admitted they hadn’t learnt he was standing until it was announced.

There was a constant insistence the qualified referee was a good constituency MP and parliamentarian, and was stepping up due to his platform and ability to help hold the seat. This came despite Mr Ross saying in 2021 that he wouldn't stand in Moray again.

However, there has been little explanation as to how he can continue to do both the job of MSP and MP, if elected, long term. That is a criticism Mr Ross cannot escape and one he may struggle to answer. There is also a suggestion from some Scottish Tory figures this decision should have come sooner, but the party left it to the last minute.

For his party, Mr Duguid has insisted he was fit to stand in both a statement on X, and speaking to a journalist from his hospital bed on Thursday. However, he declined to comment further. The reporter who spoke to him described the former MP as “switched on, lucid, and determined”, as well as fully aware of the events of the morning.

Then there is debate on how essential it was for Mr Ross to contest the seat, with Tory sources insisting it gave them the best chance of defeating the SNP. Mr Duguid won the seat, Banff and Buchan, with a majority of 4,118 votes before the boundary reforms. Mr Ross retained Moray in 2019 with a majority of just 513.

While Mr Ross spoke about "leading from the front", and the closeness of the contest, some SNP MPs told The Scotsman they thought Mr Duguid would have still got a significant number of votes, and their party would have done less in the campaign, knowing the circumstances.

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One suggested it was about decency in Scottish politics, and that activists had been playing it “low key” due to the former minister’s health issues.

Then there is the issue of what happens next. If Mr Ross wins, he will face further accusations about abandoning Holyrood for London, having insisted in 2021 he would not stand in Moray again. It has already raised the suggestion among some opposition politicians this is an acceptance the Scottish Tories will flounder in the Holyrood elections. Mr Ross will also have to explain how he can do both jobs, while leading the party – something he previously said would only be short term.

Or there’s the worst case in which he loses, the SNP take the seat, and he has to stand in Holyrood where he said his focus was, constantly reminded he tried to be somewhere else as well. The decision has created a new attack line about a lack of sympathy, and prolonged those criticisms that already existed.

How Mr Ross handles either outcome will be crucial to the duration of his leadership.

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