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State of the Union: New leader, old battles

05 August 2020

Former Cabinet Office Special Adviser Fraser Raleigh gives his take on what Douglas Ross, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, means for the party and the Union

Douglas Ross, MP for Moray, has  been confirmed as the new Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, less than a week after Jackson Carlaw’s abrupt resignation after only a few months in the job. Nominations for the leadership closed at noon and with Ross the only candidate, a coronation followed. He will continue to sit as an MP for the rest of the current Parliament, but will not be able to take a seat in Holyrood until next May’s Scottish elections.

The swift change in management indicates how seriously the Conservatives in both Holyrood and Westminster see the threat to the Union of a potential SNP majority in May 2021, which would immediately lead to renewed calls for a second independence referendum.

Ross is a sharp and effective operator, widely seen as one of the Scottish Conservatives’ best performers. He won his Moray seat, in the North East of Scotland, from the then SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson in 2017 as part of a wave of thirteen new Scottish Conservatives: the only bright spot in the otherwise disastrous general election result for the Conservatives. Ross faced a huge fightback from the SNP in last December’s election, managing to hold his seat, but with his majority slashed to just 513.

His progress through the ranks at Westminster was cut short in May by his own decision to resign as Scotland Office Minister in protest at Dominic Cummings’ decision to travel to the North East during lockdown: the only minister to do so.

A professional linesman, Ross’s substitution for Carlaw is an attempt by the Scottish Conservative to stay in the game. To bolster his attack, Ruth Davidson has returned from her self-imposed stint on the bench and will serve on Ross’s team. She will face off against Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions until Ross can return as an MSP.

Davidson is still the only real superstar the unionist cause can call on, and her decision to step back into the fray a year after walking away from frontline politics will be a huge boost for Ross, albeit a temporary one as she still plans to swap Holyrood for the House of Lords next year following the confirmation of her peerage.

Ross’s appointment and Davidson’s return come as Westminster prepares to respond to  growing support for Scottish independence, and a new battle over the internal market of the UK.

COVID-19, in particular, has boosted support for the Scottish Government, with Nicola Sturgeon widely seen by voters to have navigated the crisis better than Boris Johnson despite comparable failings, such as care homes. COVID-19 has also brought devolution into sharper focus than any event since the creation of the Scottish Parliament more than 20 years ago, with Scots now able to see crucial decisions on public health, school closures and lockdown restrictions made by the First Minister, not the Prime Minister.

While the coronavirus crisis has shown the extent to which power has been devolved from Westminster to Holyrood over the past two decades the UK Government sees the importance of maintaining the internal market of the United Kingdom after Brexit as one of its key priorities before the end of the transition period in December.

The publication of the BEIS white paper on the internal market this month set out detailed plans to replace EU-wide structures with UK-wide ones, with new legislation coming forward before the end of the year that UK-wide businesses should be paying close attention to. The legislation will open up battles with the devolved administrations, and particularly the Scottish Government. The UK Government insists new overarching rules are needed to ensure no barriers to trade emerge between the four constituent parts of the UK once existing EU rules end. The Scottish Government has denounced these plans as a power grab and will campaign loudly against what it calls an attack on devolution.

Under Ross’s leadership, however, the Scottish Conservatives are determined to avoid getting drawn into more constitutional fights. Instead, they want to major on the SNP’s domestic record after more than 13 years in government, with Ross talking about the need for “a party of Scottish patriotism” focused on education, justice and the economy to counter nationalism.

While the SNP are still unquestionably the dominant force, there are still opportunities, particularly on education, with the mass downgrading of Scottish higher students this week bringing heavy criticism of the First Minister. Internal cracks within the party are beginning to show too, with a bitter battle over the candidate selection for Edinburgh Central at next year’s election pitting allies of former leader Alex Salmond against those loyal to Sturgeon, and tension on tactics between the softer and harder elements of the independence movement.

With the Scottish Conservatives under new leadership and the UK Government gearing up for a fight over the internal market, the next nine months before the Holyrood elections will see Scotland return to the centre of UK politics.