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Douglas Ross is not blameless for Scottish Conservatives’ slide and must learn lessons



It is easy, and common, to overestimate the implications of a poor set of local election results for a party leader.

In reality, examples of party leaders who are forced to resign after a local election are few and far between.

So, Douglas Ross’s leadership is not in trouble as a result of the Scottish Tory party’s slide into third place across Scotland. However, it is incumbent on Mr Ross to understand why it has happened.

He has already, forcefully and relentlessly, given his version of events: blame Boris. Doubtless, the Prime Minister’s troubles will have had a part to play.

Boris Johnson was never popular in Scotland (in keeping with his Westminster predecessors) and the partygate affair is dragging his support further down.

However it would be too easy, too convenient and too naive for Mr Ross to rule out other potential reasons for his party’s reversal.

At the last set of local authority elections, Jeremy Corbyn was Labour’s leader; now, the combination of Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar is immeasurably easier to vote for.

I had expected that Labour would overtake the Tories in Scotland, at some point, as a result of this alone.

The Tories’ position as Scotland’s second party is built almost exclusively on its unionist credentials rather than it being viewed as an alternative government. Nobody serious believes Douglas Ross has a better chance of becoming First Minister than Anas Sarwar.

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Moreover, because the Scottish independence debate is comparatively quieter, the Tory message has lacked cut-through. It is effectively a single-issue “no to indyref2” party, and when the debate loses that focal point, the party loses potency.

So, yes, it is about Mr Johnson, but it’s not all about Mr Johnson. Even if it were, Mr Ross is not a blameless, passive participant, helplessly unable to resist the effect of the ill winds from Westminster.

Mr Ross makes a choice to be the leader of a political party blood bound to the one led by Mr Johnson.

Scottish voters, uniquely in Europe, have no home-grown party of the liberal centre for whom to vote. If they are of that ideological persuasion, they must either vote for the party led, from London, by Mr Johnson, or (as we are given to understand happened in large numbers on Thursday) simply stay at home.

He could make a different choice.

The Scottish Tories can cry that a big boy did it and ran away, but, in the final analysis they can throw the big boy out, and start a party of their own.

  • The author is director of Message Matters and Zero Matters and the former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives

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