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Scottish Tories Fear Rift Between Holyrood And Westminster Will Harm Election Prospects

5 min read

Members of the Scottish Tory grassroots have warned the strained relationship is causing problems for activists on the doorstep.

Ongoing hostilities between Westminster and Holyrood have triggered fears among Scottish activists that the split could damage them ahead of May’s local elections.

The rift began earlier this month when Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged the Prime Mininster to resign over the party scandal, leading to a rebuke from fellow senior Tories.

In a series of broadcast interviews, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described Ross as “lightweight” and “not a big figure”, adding that more “important” MPs, such as Scotland Secretary Alister Jack, were backing Johnson.

But Scottish Conservatives have largely supported Ross' position, with 27 out of the 31 party's MSPs also publicly calling for Johnson to go.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Johnson refused to refute the comments about Ross, saying instead he believed his party had the “right” approach to the union.

"We want to keep it together," he added. "I think Conservatives in Scotland do an excellent job and that's why their stout defence of the union was repaid at the last election."

But the Tory civil war has raised fears it could damage the party’s election chances in Scotland where they are already battling a polling slump. Much of the ire from activists is aimed at "arrogant" Rees-Mogg.

One local Tory activist, who has campaigned for the party in several elections, said Rees-Mogg had shown arrogance with the remarks, and pointed to another Commons question where the cabinet minister appeared to be unable to name the leader of the Welsh Conservatives.

"It shows the sheer arrogance of the man that he went on the radio and insulted Douglas Ross in a bid to shore up Boris Johnson and save his own job," they told PoliticsHome.

"He clearly didn't know who Andrew RT Davies [the Welsh Conservative leader] was either. It's insulting. The idea that he would risk the party's position in Scotland in a bid to defend the indefensible is galling."

The rift made it difficult when out campaigning. "It's an odd experience to have people expressing sympathy for you on the doorstep because of how badly you have been treated by senior members of your own party," they said. 

The 5 May elections will be a crucial moment for the Scottish Conservative party, who currently control the second largest number of council seats behind the SNP.

One Tory councillor, who is seeking to defend their seat, said Rees-Mogg's history in Scotland demonstrated his "contempt" for the country.

"Sadly, I am old enough to remember when he ran for a seat in Fife where he went around the constituency in his Bentley with his nanny in tow," they said.

"He punched his card here before he got a safe seat in England. He's always treated Scotland with contempt and now he risks creating a toxic atmosphere for our campaigners."

They also pointed towards reports from the time that Rees-Mogg had allegedly been rescued by  a Labour opponent during his 1997 election campaign from being attacked during one hustings event. 

One Tory MP who represents an English constituency said they were "dismayed" by the friction between the two camps. "We are the Conservative and Unionist Party, and each and every member of this party should remind themselves daily of that fact," they said. 

"Nothing should be more precious than the unity of our nation, and I condemn anyone who seeks, for whatever reason, to sow discord on that matter."

Another Tory councillor in Scotland said they didn't wish to "compound the misery" but added that "most voters can see these elections are about how their local services are managed, rather than political bickering".

Ross' comments have put him at odds with other senior party figures who have insisted they will wait for the Sue Gray investigation to be included before making judgements about the Prime Minister, with one party staffer saying the Scottish Conservative leader had been "unwise" to push for a resignation.

"Douglas Ross has principles and he was admirable in sticking to his position when the facts changed, but he has painted himself into a corner by demanding a resignation. For the sake of the party in Scotland it was probably, on reflection, an unwise decision," they said.

"We have precious little time to make our case with voters, and we should be focusing on the catastrophic record of the SNP in local government, rather than giving them ammunition to use against us."

Andrew Bowie, the Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, told PoliticsHome he believed voters would be able to "disconnect" the row from the issues that mattered to them.

"Obviously I would be lying if I suggested it hasn't hit members hard. But we are positive about the locals," he said. "We have been winning by-elections across the North East last year and hope to put up our largest ever slate of candidates in May.

"People, I think, will disconnect the current issues from the issues they will be voting on in the local elections.

He added: "I think the party will survive this. We've got great councillors, great candidates and a positive story to tell in the city and shire which have both had Conservatives in administration."

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