John Lamont: For too long we’ve had just one perspective from Scotland. It’s important that’s put right
The Scottish Conservatives are enjoying a revival and John Lamont is helping to lead the charge. The new MP talks to Sebastian Whale about short odds, long commutes and the ‘potential’ of Ruth Davidson
Theresa May was not the only Conservative to put everything on the line ahead of 8 June. After trying unsuccessfully to become an MP on three previous occasions, John Lamont decided to devote his full attention to this general election. On 25 April, he announced he would stand down as an MSP after 10 years in Holyrood, placing his political career at stake in the process.
The Tories had increased their vote share in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk markedly in consecutive elections with Lamont as candidate, and incumbent SNP MP, Calum Kerr, had a tantalisingly slender majority of 328. Short odds in political terms, but still a risk. Lamont, who was in the end elected with 53.9% of the vote, is modest about the boldness he displayed.
“Anybody who knows me will tell you I’m never particularly confident either before exams or before elections. It wasn’t so much that I was expecting victory when I resigned, it was a recognition of how important the election was – for my own constituents and the whole of Scotland,” he says.
Lamont takes his place among 13 Tory MPs representing seats in Scotland, up from one in 2015. For this he credits Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, under whose watch the party has become the official opposition in the Scottish government, and her unequivocal opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s moves for a second independence referendum.
The 41-year-old’s political journey began at Glasgow University, when he joined the Conservative party as an activist. The son of a teacher (mother) and a farmer (father), Lamont volunteered for the Tories while working as a solicitor and had his first experience of elections in 1997. He recounts the “hostility and anger” he received on the doorstep while campaigning in the Borders. It was a sobering first exposure to politics, too, as the Conservatives lost all 11 of their seats in Scotland as Tony Blair’s New Labour ran rampant.
Fast forward 20 years and the Tories are resurgent against the SNP tide. Davidson’s detoxification programme has meant the reception Lamont received on the doorstep two decades after the 1997 election could not have been more different. “I’ve experienced both extremes of political campaigning. Right from my very first days in 1997 to this current campaign which has just concluded, there was just a huge contrast between the two.”
The result in Scotland partially softened the election blow for Theresa May, and may well have kept her in Downing Street and able to form a minority government. Davidson’s already high stock has gone up in value – a feat not shared among many senior Tories at this present time. Emboldened, she has used her status to call for LGBT rights to be protected in the deal with the DUP, and an “open Brexit”.
Lamont is no stranger to her talents. He ran Davidson’s campaign for the Tory leadership when she was a rank outsider as a newly elected MSP in 2011. He also served as Tory chief whip in the Scottish parliament before standing down. Does he believe she would make a good prime minister? A seasoned politician, Lamont doesn’t give much away in his reply.
“I’ve known Ruth since the very beginning of her political career,” he says. “I saw very, very quickly what her potential was...
“But she does have a very important job to do in Scotland, and as long as Nicola Sturgeon continues to talk about referendums and taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom, Ruth Davidson has got a very important job to try and stop that from happening.
“Equally, the 13 of us down here at Westminster need to be articulating the very positive message from those Scots who want Scotland to remain part of the UK as well.
“For too long over the last parliament we’ve had just one perspective from Scotland, and it’s very important that’s put right.”
The Tories’ Scottish contingent has been in close contact as they each set up their offices and acclimatise to life in Westminster. Lamont, as something of a veteran when compared to the other newbies, has been sought out for advice by his fellow MPs. But he too is finding his feet. “I say to people that, while I’ve been a member of a parliament, I’ve not been a member of this parliament. There are undoubtedly big differences between how the two operate. The personnel are very different and the dynamic is very different. I’ve gone from being the party of opposition in the Scottish parliament to being the party of government here in Westminster – it’s a very steep learning curve,” he says.
That’s not to say the Scots Tories are in anyway isolating themselves from the wider party. “We haven’t just restricted ourselves to Scotland. I guess it’s the same for MPs coming from Yorkshire, or from Wales or from Cornwall – you have a natural affinity to one another because you’re all from the same part of the United Kingdom. But we’re also conscious of the fact that we’re part of the bigger Conservative party movement as well,” he says.
Lamont is not only adjusting to a new work environment, but also to a very different commute. What was once an hour trip to Holyrood has turned into a three-hour train journey from Berwick-upon-Tweed station into King’s Cross. While Lamont says the journey is manageable, the permutations of a hung parliament, and the need for the whips to, on occasion, mobilise every Conservative vote to pass through legislation, means it might not be all plain sailing. So to speak.
“Clearly, when there’s not a critical vote here I will try to get back to the constituency as quickly as I can,” he says. “It will be interesting to see just how that pans out, given we now have a minority government. We’ll see how they’re going to manage that.”
As MP for a largely rural constituency, Lamont is particularly keen on pushing forward the agenda on faster broadband to all corners of the UK. He raised the matter in his maiden speech, 10 years on from his first address in Holyrood. He is also set on cutting his teeth on the issue of most immediate prevalence to the United Kingdom going forward – Brexit. Lamont, who voted Remain, will push for the “best deal” for local businesses, farmers and fishermen.
A fresh faced but experienced politician, Lamont is savvy enough to avoid pitfalls where they appear. He straight-bats questions on whether the current occupant of No 10 is the right person to lead us into the Brexit negotiations (“I’m confident that Theresa May has the experience and the skills to guide the government, and also the country, through that challenging period”) and when he thinks the next election will be (“it’s a Fixed-term Parliaments Act and I don’t think there are any plans for an early election”).
Calm, cautious and experienced, Lamont is a dab hand at a political interview. Increasingly it seems his undoubtedly bold decision to stand down as an MSP was a calculated gamble. Unlike the prime minister, his was a risk that paid off.