Can Douglas Ross save the Union?
Douglas Ross says under him the Scottish Conservatives will have their own unique identity
As new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross gears up for an election that could decide the fate of the Union, he tells James Millar why he’ll be putting voters north of the Border first – even if that means disagreeing with Downing Street
The Prime Minister’s chief adviser and the leader of his party in Scotland have never exchanged a word. It seems remarkable given Conservative party claims to cherish the union. But the man widely seen as Boris Johnson’s brain, Dominic Cummings, has not spoken to the man on the frontline of efforts to keep the UK together since he became leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross.
Ross insists he has the requisite influence in Downing Street, and that he’s in regular touch with Johnson. “I’ve had good constructive discussions with the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet, special advisers throughout government. But I’ve never had any reason to and have not sought out Mr Cummings,” he adds.
Given he is meeting all those people it could almost feel like Cummings is avoiding him. “I don’t think so. Whoever that source was who said that I was a ‘nobody’ back when I resigned, it didn’t sound like he or others had a particularly high opinion of me, so I doubt he or others are thinking about avoiding me,” he says.
The resignation he refers to may have cemented the relationship between the two, or lack thereof. Ross was the only member of the government to resign in the spring following Cummings’ liberal interpretation of lockdown laws. The justification from the PM’s chief of staff – involving the difficulty of childcare and an unlikely eye test – was good enough for everyone in the government bar Ross, who quit his role as a junior Scotland Office minister. And he stands by that decision. “It was something I thought about because I really enjoyed the work I was doing at the Scotland Office, it was something I was passionate about and I had to reconcile that knowing that if I did resign that was the end of my ministerial career.
“But I could not look my constituents in the eyes who had followed the letter of the law to the nth degree, who had done everything they were asked and, whatever the mitigating circumstances, they had looked at the situation with Mr Cummings and thought he had not done as they had done.
“People missed funerals of loved ones, they couldn’t go in and see people in hospital, they couldn’t be with their family at times of need and I just could not defend those actions.
“At that time the messaging was so important. To tell people these are difficult decisions, we’ve all got to follow them to get on top of this virus and to make sure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed. And if we are asking everyone to do it then everyone must follow those instructions.”
We are the ones who will stand up for the union and will turn the discussion back to the issues that matter to people
Some have suggested Ross’ resignation was part of a masterplan to burnish his credentials as his own man. He laughs off such a theory. “I love the fact that people think I am so forward thinking that a resignation in May was somehow linked to becoming leader of the Scottish Conservatives in August!”
Exactly how Ross came to lead the Scottish Tories remains mired in some mystery. After former leader Jackson Carlow surprised almost everybody with his resignation, Ross was the sole candidate to replace him and he was in post within a week. Ruth Davidson agreed to stand in for him as leader of the opposition in Holyrood until he’s elected via regional list at next year’s election.
But Davidson, widely credited with reviving Tory fortunes north of the border, paid a visit to Ross just before Carlaw quit. Was there something of the ‘men in grey suits’ about his departure? “I’ve been quite honest about it – private conversations remain private with me. I’ve never been one for salacious gossip or tipping off the media. Ruth and I have a lot in common and talk about a lot of things.”
Ross’s elevation was just another twist in this year of the unexpected. Lockdown had its benefits for the 37-year-old. His son Alistair just turned one as lockdown loomed and was crawling around the house. Now he’s running around the Scottish countryside. “To actually be there with him day in day out to see the progression is something I’m really glad I didn’t miss.”
But the pandemic put paid to his other great love, football. Ross is famously a top-level assistant referee. His office mantelpiece features pictures of his wedding day and his first prize cow. (He studied agriculture at college). But those photos are dwarfed by a snap of him shaking hands with Lionel Messi before officiating a Champion’s League match. He’s had that one blown up from the regular six inches by four inches to more like six feet by four feet.
He’ll be officiating at the England vs Wales friendly at Wembley next week, but has pledged to quit running the line should he become First Minister in May.
Polling suggests he’ll need to keep his flags ironed for some time to come. The SNP may win another overall majority at Holyrood next year. And they are keen to paint that outcome as a mandate for a second independence referendum, known to all and sundry in Scotland as indyref2.
Ross won’t entertain the proposition. “That is a hypothetical about an election that is eight months away. And it goes along with the SNP narrative that the most important thing in Scottish politics is the constitution.
“I want to say let’s put that division of the past behind us, let’s use this coming parliament to focus on issues like education, the health system, justice, supporting the economy. Let’s focus on the powers the parliament currently has and what it can do with them.”
He’s convinced he can go toe to toe with the SNP, who he insists on referring to as separatists. “The SNP had a majority for one parliament and Nicola Sturgeon lost the SNP’s majority [in 2016] because of the Scottish Conservatives.
“If people don’t want the focus in the next parliament to be on the constitution, if they want to stop the SNP, they know the only party that can do it are the Scottish Conservatives. We’ve got the track record of doing it. We are the ones who will stand up for the union with the United Kingdom and will turn the discussion back to the issues that matter to people the length and breadth of the country.”
Conventional wisdom suggests the constitutional debate suits the Tories just fine in Scotland, so long as they remain the only party able to lay claim to the title of party of the union. (Scottish Labour remains in disarray and the Scottish Lib Dems still seem to be paying the price of the Coalition years). But Ross insists he wants to move the conversation on.
“The economic recovery post- this global pandemic is going to be crucial and I don’t believe the Scottish Government has done enough to prepare the country for that.
“So I said that within my first 30 days I’d have a paper on stimulating the economy, on protecting jobs and we delivered that in my first month as leader.”
Sturgeon famously said education was the benchmark on which her administration should be judged. After the summer exams fiasco the Scottish Conservatives are keen to make it an election issue. “Education is key going forward,” he says. “After 13 years of the SNP in government we’ve 3,000 fewer teachers in Scotland. A lot of our schools are not in great condition. We’ve brought forward a series of proposals to take teacher numbers back up to where they were when the SNP took power and to invest in our schools, and also some policies that aren’t immediately considered traditional Conservative policies like free school meals for everyone.”
The Scottish Conservatives are a separate party from the UK party. We’ll have our own unique policies decided by me and my team
The economy and the education look like they’ll be the twin pillars of the Conservative campaign in 2021.
But inevitably the pandemic is going to feature. Nicola Sturgeon has presented an image of professionalism and credibility at her ongoing daily press conferences. Yet she’s encountered many of the same issues as her English counterparts – care home deaths, exam algorithm blunders and now foreseeable student lockdowns. Ross surely realises that his ability to attack the SNP administration in Edinburgh is hampered by the fact that the exact same criticisms could be directed at his own party’s government in Westminster.
For example just as Scottish Tories were gearing up for a vote of no confidence in SNP education secretary John Swinney over his handling of Scottish exams their English counterparts were defending Gavin Williamson over the exact same fiasco.
Ross recognises the issue but insists few on the doorsteps make that comparison, suggesting it’s often an SNP tactic to distract from their own failings. “What frustrates me is when people say it’s just as bad in England. That doesn’t help a youngster in a school in Scotland who doesn’t get to study the subjects they need to get into a course that they’ve sent their sights on,” he says.
“Where there are devolved issues, fully in the remit of the Scottish Government, they should focus on those rather than saying ‘look over there it’s just as bad in that part of that country’.”
While Boris Johnson is lauded for reaching the parts other Tories can’t in England, in Scotland where he’s perceived as an electoral turn off. How much will Ross call on his boss to bolster his Holryood campaign next year? He insists the PM received a warm welcome when he visited Moray recently to thank troops stationed there for their efforts during the pandmic but he still had this to say, “He is not running for election next year. The Scottish Conservatives are a separate party from the UK party. In the past we’ve had different polices and we’ll have our own unique policies decided by me and my team in Scotland going forward.”
Ross is clearly keen to put clear blue water between himself and the operation in Downing Street. Which may be just as well. It seems unlikely he’ll be getting the benefit of Dominic Cummings campaigning nous next year.