New event: Scotland and the Future of the Union, with Douglas Ross MP MSP

20 May

We are very pleased to invite you to our next live online event, on the topic of Scotland and the Future of the Union, with none other than Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Join our expert panel for a discussion hosted by ConservativeHome in partnership with UK in a Changing Europe, featuring:

  • Douglas Ross MP MSP, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives
  • Mandy Rhodes, Editor, Holyrood Magazine
  • Professor Nicola McEwen, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe
  • Henry Hill, News Editor, ConservativeHome (Chairman)

With unrivalled insight from political, media and academic perspectives, the event will explore the implications of the recent Holyrood elections for Scotland, the Conservative Party and the Union.

As ever, audience members will also have the opportunity to put their questions to the panel.

The event will take place at 7pm-8pm, on Wednesday 26th May, via Zoom.

Click here to get your free ticket.

Live Blog: Scottish and Welsh election results. The SNP fails to win its majority. And Ross holds the Conservative position steady.

7 May

9am Sunday May 9

Paul Goodman reporting

And there we have it:

  • The SNP have failed by one seat in their quest for a majority.
  • The Conservatives are still second; they lost a single seat; their vote share is fractionally down (21.9 per cent to 22 per cent – so small a change as to make no difference.  That will help Ross fight back against Davidson’s criticisms of his campaign.  It also suggests that, as Henry Hill has repeatedly argued on this site, Tory progress in Scotland is as much about the Party’s unionist position as about who leads it.
  • Labour is down two seats, the Greens up two seats.

 

18.30

  • Douglas Ross has been returned to the Scottish Parliament, where he currently plans to serve concurrently as MP for Moray until the next general election.
  • Whilst it will take a while for the full list results to come in, projections are that the SNP will fall two seats short of an overall majority.
  • They also suggest the Conservatives will return the same number of MSPs as in 2016, whilst Labour and the Lib Dems lose a few to the Greens.

Analysis:

  • If these results are borne out, it means that Sturgeon has failed to advance the SNP over a five year period which has witnessed Brexit, a Tory landslide at Westminster, and Boris Johnson – allegedly Scotland’s bête noire – become Prime Minister, whilst she received huge credit for the Scottish Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

16.30

  • The Conservatives have held the vital seat of Aberdeenshire West, with Alexander Burnett increasing their majority from 900 to 3,390.
  • Sky News says this makes an SNP majority “all but impossible”, although as mentioned previously there are reports of a knife-fight for a list seat.
  • There was a big swing from the Lib Dems, whose vote fell by 12.6 per cent, to the Tories, whose rose by 9.1%. A relatively rare case of major tactical voting by unionists in what used to be a Lib Dem heartland.

15.00

Wales:

  • We have the final result in Wales: Labour 30, Conservatives 16, Plaid Cymru 13, and the Liberal Democrats one.
  • This is a great result for Labour, who will be able to govern alone and have defied dramatic polling over the past few weeks.
  • It is also a solid result for the Tories, who have basically picked up five of the seven seats which UKIP won in 2016.
  • Plaid’s slow decline continues, capped by the loss of Leanne Wood in the Rhondda. This was the one area where the Nationalists had managed to break out of their traditional heartlands.
  • The Lib Dems have lost their last constituency seat to the Conservatives, and now cling on in Wales’ three-party system on the lists.
  • Abolish are licking their wounds: there are suggestions that there first step will be to try and mop up what remains of UKIP and Reform UK’s Welsh operations before next year’s local elections.

Scotland:

  • Media reports that the Conservatives are very narrowly ahead in West Aberdeenshire, a race which could determine whether or not the SNP can win an overall majority.
  • Suggestions that the Tories are also in a knife-edge fight with the SNP for at least one seat on the lists. Will Alliance for Unity, who were pitching for main-party voters to lend them their list votes ‘risk free’, end up putting Sturgeon over the top?
  • However one senior Scottish Conservative suggested to me the party’s grim messaging about the lists was a ‘double bluff’.

13.30

  • Bad news from Scotland, where the Conservatives are suggesting that the SNP may yet win an overall majority on the list vote – probably despite a rise in support for the Greens. They’re blaming ‘All for Unity’, George Galloway’s fringe party, for splitting the vote – as we warned they would.
  • On the upside, Alex Salmond’s Alba Party has conceded that it isn’t going to enter the Scottish Parliament at all.
  • There haven’t been elections in Northern Ireland this year, but there is still some excitement. Steve Aiken has announced that he will resign as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. This means that both they and the Democratic Unionists have concurrent contests – all change in Ulster.

12.00

  • It’s all a bit quiet on the northern front results-wise, although Matt Singh as kindly taken the time to tweet a health warning about reading too much from the Aberdeenshire results.
  • A ballot paper has also been seized over an incident of suspected voter impersonation in Edinburgh.
  • Talk is already turning to what happens next, with two strands of the SNP strategy emerging. First, Sturgeon says she will press ahead with a referendum bill and challenge the Government to see her in court.
  • Second, Nationalist ministers will reportedly be touring the world to try and drum up international support, in order to ‘shame’ the Prime Minister into granting a referendum. (It is not obvious that the Prime Minister would weigh a stern word from Joe Biden more heavily than derailing his entire agenda for the next few years and risking becoming the next Lord North.)

Wales:

  • In Wales, Tory activists are highlighting the challenge I have previously written about on this site: voters who back the party at general (and even local) elections scorning the Senedd. One organiser said: “Tory target was 75 per cent of 2019 vote – my my calculations we only achieved 52 per cent”.
  • Nonetheless the consensus seems to be that the Conservatives will end up with 16 seats, comfortably above their previous best of 14 in 2011.
  • There is already debate about the best way forward, with some suggesting the party should focus less on middle-class constituencies such as Cardiff North in favour of trying to reach out to Valleys voters who previously backed UKIP.

11.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good morning. Here’s a quick round-up of what came in overnight. Then we’ll resume the live blogging as results come in over the afternoon.

Scotland:

  • Two results last night put an SNP majority back in doubt. First, Jackson Carlaw held Eastwood for the Conservatives with an increased majority.
  • Second, Labour’s Jackie Baillie pulled off a spectacular win in Dumbarton, previously Scotland’s most marginal seat. The change in vote shares suggests a relatively rare instance of decisive tactical voting by unionists.
  • As a result, all eyes must now be on Aberdeenshire West, where the Tories are defending a majority of 900 over the Nationalists. That the Conservatives slashed the SNP majority in neighbouring Aberdeenshire East seems a good omen.

Wales:

  • The overnight result confirmed a remarkable stasis, with only three constituencies changing hands overall. The Conservatives took one apiece from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, whilst Labour took one from Plaid.
  • Overall, Welsh Labour are apparently on track for 30 seats, which matches their previous best-ever performance. They could once again govern in coalition with the lone Lib Dem.
  • The Conservatives are on track to be comfortably the largest opposition party, overtaking Plaid Cymru. But activists are disappointed after the party missed out on several key targets whose Westminster analogues fell during the 2017 election.
  • Likewise, Abolish the Welsh Assembly are facing a painful post-mortem after getting “massacred”, in the words of one senior member. Their initial feeling is that “the support all ran back to the Tories”, but almost every poll showed them on track for seats.

19.30

  • The party has held two seats in Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire and Dumfriesshire.
  • But as expected, the SNP have won Edinburgh Central, which was a surprise personal victory for Ruth Davidson in 2016.
  • Speaking of Davidson: if you want an idea of how the Scottish Conservative campaign is going, she is disowning it. She joins those Tories already furious at the decision to deliberately amplify the SNP’s claims about a second referendum.

Speculation:

  • As far as the election goes, the SNP still have a path to an overall majority through seats such as Dumbarton, Eastwood (although see below), and West Aberdeenshire.
  • There are suggestions that Labour have asked for a recount in Dumbarton, where the margin is reportedly around 25 votes.
  • One senior Scottish Tory has suggested to me that the party ought to seriously consider not standing candidates in parts of Scotland. Presumably the hope is that these voters will back other pro-UK parties, but time and again Tory voters have proven unwilling to do this.
  • Another said that the result should prompt a re-examination of the level of autonomy granted to SCHQ.
  • This seems to be a good place to re-post my original piece warning the Tories not to over-state the importance of Davidson’s personal impact, as opposed to deeper structural factors, underlying the party’s strong performances in 2016 and 2017.

That’s all from this thread this evening. See you tomorrow for the list results and the overall shape of the next Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

18.30

  • Gower. Wrexham. Delyn. The list of Conservative constituency targets missed just keeps growing. Seats whose Westminster counterparts went Tory in 2019 but where the party has once again failed to break through in the Senedd. Wrexham, in particular, was described by one activist as a “disaster”.
  • Sources are also pessimistic about both Cardiff North and Vale of Glamorgan, with some suggesting that the party erred by focusing resources on the latter race. There is more optimism about Brecon & Radnorshire, where the Conservatives are gunning for the Lib Dems’ last constituency seat.

Speculation:

  • There is still an expectation that the Conservatives will advance overall thanks to making some gains in the list. Some also seek a silver lining in the fact that Labour’s resilience may reduce their reliance on Plaid Cymru in the next parliament.
  • But overall, this is shaping up to be a big disappointment for Tory activists in Wales, especially when contrasted by the big advances the party is making in parts of England.

17.30

  • John Scott, the Conservative MSP for Ayr, has lost by 170 votes. He is too far down the list to be re-elected and will leave the Scottish Parliament. His majority last time was 750.
  • The SNP have taken a seat off Labour in East Lothian.
  • This might end up being a wash overall because both seats are in the South of Scotland region, the only one where the Nationalists return list MSPs.
  • Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have missed out on a top target in Caithness – suggestions that their leader, Willie Rennie, may be on ‘resignation watch‘.

16.30

  • A gain for the Conservatives in Vale of Clwyd, a seat whose Westminster counterpart is held by James Davies MP. But activists are maudlin, saying that the “result is not a good indication at all, even with a win”.
  • Leanne Wood, the former leader of Plaid Cymru, has lost Rhondda back to Labour. Twitter suggests she “stormed out of the count“.

Speculation:

  • There are reports that the party could lose Aberconwy to the Welsh nationalists, and fall short in a number of targets where they were hoping to oust Labour. If this comes to pass, their performance will contrast badly both with the 2019 general election result and the astonishing Tory results being posted in England.
  • Key question: why are they failing to consolidate UKIP’s substantial 2016 vote? That election suggested there is space for a right-wing ‘bloc’ of around 20 seats, with marginal Conservative progress. If voter patterns settle down again, have the Conservatives missed the boat on realignment?

15.30

  • The Conservatives have fallen short in Banffshire and Buchan Coast, an area where they have managed to retain MPs at Westminster. There was a substantial swing to them from the Nationalists, but not enough. This is also the area of Scotland that almost voted Leave.
  • If the SNP didn’t lose this, the odds of their losing any seats are minimal. However, John Curtice says that they are not currently doing well enough for a majority.
  • Some on Twitter are blaming Labour and the Lib Dems for denying a pro-UK MSP, but the problem has always been that a chunk of their voters simply will not vote Tory.

Speculation:

  • But there are rumours that there could be good news for the Conservatives elsewhere, as per the above tweet. Could be a product of a concerted effort by pro-UK sources – especially the Scottish Daily Mail – to get pro-UK voters to give their regional vote to the Tories.

14.30

  • The Conservatives have doubled their majority in Montgomeryshire, benefiting from the absence of UKIP. Most parties vote share is up a bit save for the Lib Dems’, which as fallen by almost 11 points.

Speculation:

  • Despite the above, the chatter seems to be of an overall disappointing election for the Conservatives relative to expectations. One local source said: “Well at the beginning we thought we were doing well across Wales. But now it’s sliding – seats which should have been a shoe in are tight.”
  • Why might this be? Two suggested reasons: first, that Plaid Cymru’s poor performance means the left/nationalist vote isn’t splitting.
  • Second, that the Conservatives have once again failed to mobilised the hundreds and thousands of their voters who usually sit out devolved elections. “The party think they’ve killed the Abolish vote, but that could be at the expense of keeping it at home.”
  • Does the Montgomeryshire result auger ill for the Lib Dems in neighbouring Brecon and Radnorshire? They had a big majority last time but it was competitive in 2011, the corresponding Westminster seat is safely Tory, and popular incumbent Kirsty Williams is standing down.

13.30

  • We’re starting to get some results in. Aberdeen Donside is an SNP hold but with a swing to the Conservatives.
  • The Liberal Democrats have also held their safe seat of Orkney, albeit with the Nationalists up.

Speculation:

  • Tory sources suggest that there is evidence of unionist tactical voting in constituencies that already have a pro-UK MSP. If this holds, they think it will be very difficult for the SNP to secure an overall majority.
  • However they do expect the Nationalists to take Edinburgh Central, which was a surprise gain for Ruth Davidson in 2016. They say this was a fluke and a personal vote, and the party did not expect to retain it. This will put Angus Robertson, formerly the SNP’s Westminster leader, in Holyrood.
  • Word is that Alba have ‘bombed’, although they may pick up one or two seats. Their main impact may have been persuading SNP voters to split their tickets… for the Greens, who may take two or three list seats apiece off the Conservatives and Labour as a consequence.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

  • Results will soon start to come in from counts across Scotland and Wales. These elections could cast a long shadow over the rest of this Parliament if Boris Johnson is forced into a pitched battle for the future of the Union.
  • In Scotland, there has been a huge surge in turnout. Unionists were initially extremely gloomy about this, but there are reports that it is also up in areas pro-UK parties were targeting.
  • In Wales, sources last night suggested that the Conservatives were feeling bullish, with a sense that the wind had come out of Abolish the Assembly’s sails over the past week or so.

Results to watch out for in Scotland:

  • Will the Scottish National Party secure an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, or will they be forced once again to come to an arrangement with the Greens?
  • Will the Scottish Tories hold on to second place, and defend marginal constituencies such as Eastwood?
  • Conversely will Anas Sarwar’s Labour claw back second place, and hold ultra-marginal seats such as Dunbarton?
  • Will either Alex Salmond (Alba Party) or George Galloway (All for Unity) manage to secure a seat?

Results to watch out for in Wales:

  • Can the Conservatives build on the success of the 2019 general election and exceed the 14 seats they won in 2011?
  • Will Abolish manage to consolidate enough of the old UKIP vote (which took seven seats in 2016) to win a place in the Senedd?
  • Can the Tories build on the ‘red wall’ dynamic to start eating into traditional Labour seats (such as Torfaen). Can they take Gower?
  • Can the Liberal Democrats hold their last seat in Brecon and Radnor, and if not will they get wiped out in Wales?
  • Will Labour end up depending on a deal with Plaid Cymru to govern? Can they take Rhondda back from Leanne Wood?

One, two, three – and now Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the fourth time

4 Apr

The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.

The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom.  Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.

There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.

At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.

That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.

At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.

That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.

Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.

Henry Hill: Ross’s blitzkrieg didn’t bring down Sturgeon, but Fabius Johnson can yet deny her the prize

25 Mar

In a recent newsletter, Jonn Elledge wrote about the ‘peak-end’ rule – “a sort of mental shortcut which means we tend to judge experiences largely on how we felt at their most intense point and how we felt at the end”.

He was lamenting how this mental tendency will likely mean that Boris Johnson will ‘get away with’ the Government poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic because the event that’s going to most shape the popular memory of it will be the outstanding vaccine rollout.

This week unionists might have cause to worry that the same phenomenon might now benefit Nicola Sturgeon. After a torrid few weeks in which it looked as if her immediate political future might be in danger, the First Minister is now heading into the Scottish elections with some wind in her sails. Much to the surprise of most commentators – and especially her opponents – she was cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code by James Hamilton SC, the Scottish Government’s independent advisor on it.

Now he actually said it was up to MSPs to decide whether or not Sturgeon had misled them. And the Scottish Parliament’s own inquiry (which has a separatist majority if not an SNP one) was scathing – a “devastating catalogue of errors”, in the words of one journalist. But despite originally pledging to respect the outcomes of both, the First Minister has set about dismissing the latter as a partisan hatchet job whilst solemnly declaring she would have resigned if Hamilton had found against her.

If you believe that, of course, she has some ferries to sell you. And critics have rightly pointed out that Hamilton’s actual report has been redacted to such an extent that the man himself has insisted it go out with an explanatory (even exculpatory) note.

But such details aren’t likely to offset the brute fact that the flavour of the press coverage is ‘Sturgeon exonerated’, a problem compounded for the Conservatives because it meant their aggressive push for a no-confidence vote ended up leaving them “looking like mugs”, as the Daily Record put it.

However, despair is a unionist vice so it is important to remind ourselves that whilst it hasn’t immediately ended in a spectacular scalp, this snowballing series of scandals is still welcome evidence that the Scottish National Party is still subject to the laws of political mortality. As I noted for the Spectator this week:

“Johnson could easily justify ruling out a referendum until at least after the next general election, especially if his team start putting more effort into their arguments. Even assuming the government felt compelled to set one in train after that, it probably wouldn’t actually be held until 2025 or later. In that scenario, it is hard to see Sturgeon still being in post to lead her Party into that campaign.

“And without the great prize of being the woman who finally delivered Scottish independence, what incentive does she really have to slog through years of factional strife, SNP sex scandals, botched ferry contracts, and declining education outcomes?”

The game is still on, in other words, and defenders of the United Kingdom can’t afford to waste time slipping into a funk or on another round of desperate bargaining of the ‘more powers’ sort. The SNP’s domestic record is still woeful and shadowed by allegations of misconduct, and there are fresh signs that its internal divisions have not yet reached their nadir.

Fortunately for Boris Johnson, polling shows that Scottish voters are not keen on having a referendum in the next few years. The need to put right the damage of the Covid-19 pandemic joins the long list of others that the Prime Minister can employ to justify pushing back any second vote until at least after the next general election.

Not only will that force Sturgeon into an ugly confrontation with her base and make it harder for the Scottish Government to distract voters from its record, but it will also give the Government time to flex its new UKIM powers and develop other strategies such as the Union Connectivity Review and the extremely-belated Dunlop Report.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Jamie Blackett: Scottish Tories should put country before party and back ‘All for Unity’ on the list vote

12 Mar

Jamie Blackett a Conservative Party member and Leader of the Alliance for Unity.

The SNP is imploding nicely as the Salmond Inquiry, more properly the Sturgeon Inquiry, continues to shock high-minded separatists like Jim Sillars into speaking out against the rampant corruption in their party.

Although the polls still show an SNP majority with the Holyrood election in May only weeks away, and even our state broadcaster appears to be backing Sturgeon’s party, I really think we can win this. I just wish the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party thought the same.

I should qualify the ‘we’ here: I am now a heretical Tory. I would go to the stake for my Tory principles, but I have long since abandoned the idea that the best way to defend them in post-devolution Scotland is necessarily to vote Conservative in Holyrood elections.

Tactical voting has to be the way ahead. In a binary Scotland, where around 50 per cent of the population now supports independence, the ‘we’ is very definitely the pro-UK side of the argument, even if it contains people who are at the other end of the spectrum from me politically in many other respects. Like my friend and All for Unity running mate George Galloway, who has announced that he will be voting Tory to defeat the SNP (much to the chagrin of socialists everywhere, deliciously) and thereby giving the tactical voting argument a massive boost.

It is a confusing time to be a conservative in Scotland. The Scottish Tories have struggled since devolution to cope with the accusation that they are a ‘branch office’ of the national party. The taint is reinforced by the unfortunate habit of the more capable Scottish Tories – Michael Gove, Alister Jack, Ben Wallace – heading off to Westminster. One of them should really be leading the Scottish Tories into the lists in May and not Douglas Ross, who has many qualities but is doing the job about fifteen years ahead of his time – and had, in any case, decamped to Westminster himself, from whence he struggles manfully to lead the party by remote control.

I supported Murdo Fraser’s bid for the leadership in 2011 precisely because he proposed to reverse Edward Heath’s misguided reforms and re-establish the Scottish party as a completely separate entity, though calling it the Scottish Unionist Party would have been a mistake for sectarian reasons. It would really be much better if the parties in Scottish domestic politics were separate from the ones contesting national elections, something that happens in some federal countries.

The confusion is compounded by the Scottish Tories’ perhaps understandable desire to distance themselves from the national party by moving ever leftwards. It is often heard said that there is no centre ground in Scottish politics but Douglas Ross has gone to great lengths to find it. He and his party were ‘remoaners’ long after it was fashionable (and I write that as a former Remain voter myself). He has also backed the SNP’s very un-Tory policy of free university education for all, ironically a policy that has actually been shown to militate against poorer students and reduce social mobility. More recently he has voted against the government on internal market legislation.

So we are faced with a situation where pro-UK Scottish voters have a choice between voting for a party led by a privately-educated millionaire businessman who faced down his party to send his own children to private school… and a party led by Douglas Ross. The overwhelming impression is that they are two social democrats dancing on a pinhead, obsessed, in Galloway’s memorable phrase. The ‘narcissism of small differences.’

The other problem the Scottish Tories face is tactical voting. They are pushing out election literature that says the only way to defeat the SNP is to give both votes to the Tories, something that flies in the face of the logic of the Scottish electoral system, which deliberately favours smaller parties.

I understand the difficulty in saying anything else. I grew up in a Tory household. My father was chairman of the local association and my first experience of salesmanship was selling raffle tickets at a fundraiser to support Ian Laing’s campaign. I have myself turned out as volunteer at elections. I can see how demoralising it would be to the party faithful if the party acknowledged that the only way to dislodge the nationalists is to game the Holyrood electoral system by giving your second vote to All for Unity. I can also see how difficult it would be to stand down those no-hoper candidates running in what should be safe Labour seats in order to allow Labour candidates to oust the separatists.

But these are things that will have to be done if we are ever to break out of the hamster wheel of SNP rule by uniting the chronically split unionist vote against the nationalists.

So what should the Scottish Tories do? I think they should be clear what their objectives are. At the moment it appears as though all they want out of May’s elections is to have their share of the vote held up and to come an honourable second. Ross said as much in his first announcement on becoming leader when he said that he wanted to be the ‘best leader of the opposition’ – a gaffe that was then hurriedly corrected.

I think they need to listen to their members like me who want them to put ‘country before party’ and work explicitly towards evicting the SNP, removing the existential threat to the United Kingdom and ending the debilitating ‘neverendum’. An implied task that falls out of that is to acknowledge that an outright Conservative victory is not on the menu and start working towards an anti-nationalist coalition and talking openly about their hopes for a cross-party government of national unity in Holyrood.

Secondly they need to lead from the front. It is painfully obvious that they have prepared for defeat with a damage limitation strategy. Ross and other leading politicians have implicitly yielded to the SNP by not standing in constituency seats themselves and focusing on the lists. Political cowardice is rarely rewarded. If the Tories don’t believe in themselves why should anyone else?

We can win this. But Scottish Tories need to be clear about what electoral success would look like and redefine ‘we’. The alternatives don’t bear thinking about.