Tory civil war stokes talk of Scottish party breaking away


The eruption of open hostility between leaders of the UK’s ruling Conservative party and its Scottish arm has revived calls north of the border for a divorce that supporters say is the only way to revive Tory fortunes in the devolved nation.

Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader, on Wednesday called for UK prime minister Boris Johnson to resign over his attendance at a Downing Street party during a coronavirus lockdown in 2020. Hours later, Johnson ally and Tory leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed Ross as “quite a lightweight figure”.

The rift comes amid deep dismay among Scottish Conservatives over the impact of the prime minister’s tenure on the party’s popularity in Scotland. An Opinium poll for the Sunday Mail published late last month — before the latest “partygate” revelations — suggested only 17 per cent of voters in Scotland would back the Conservatives in a UK general election, a result that could see the loss of all six Scottish Tory seats.

“The prime minister has allowed a sense to develop and grow that he believes the rules don’t apply to him,” said Adam Tomkins, a former Conservative member of the Scottish parliament who stepped down last year. “It’s unforgivably dire . . . unpardonable folly”.

The Scottish Conservatives elect their own leader and set their own policies on issues that are devolved to the parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh, but follow the UK party leadership at Westminster.

Tomkins and other Scottish Conservatives, including former member of parliament Peter Duncan, say divorce from the UK party offers the only route to seriously challenging for power in Holyrood.

Policies pursued by the Tories in Westminster that are unpopular in Scotland or unsupportive of devolution have tarnished the Conservative brand at Holyrood, they believe, preventing the party tapping broad potential support for a Scottish centre-right party.

During his five years as an MSP, all of the Holyrood Conservatives’ biggest problems came from Westminster, said Tomkins, a law professor at Glasgow university. “This problem is crystallised by Boris Johnson’s pantomime politics, but it isn’t caused by Boris Johnson,” he said.

Some Scottish Tory MSPs have said the party’s popularity in Scotland was previously undermined by UK policies such as the imposition of the “bedroom tax”, a cut to housing benefit for public housing tenants judged to have too much space in their homes introduced under former prime minister David Cameron, and the “hard” Brexit pursued by Theresa May.

Calls for a Scottish Tory divorce are not new. In 2011, leadership candidate Murdo Fraser called for the creation of a new party north of the border, but was roundly defeated by Ruth Davidson, who argued for continued unity.

Davidson successfully led the Scottish Conservatives to eclipse Labour as the second largest party at Holyrood, but stepped down in 2019 with it still trailing far behind the governing Scottish National party and with little prospect of winning power in Edinburgh.

In The Daily Telegraph this month, Davidson dismissed calls for a new centre-right party in Scotland as a “short route to electoral suicide”.

“I still believe that divorcing from the UK party . . . would be seen by voters as both hollow and cynical,” wrote Davidson, who hopes that replacing Johnson as party leader could restore the Conservatives’ “moral authority”.

A Scottish Conservative split from the UK party would be seized on by independence supporters as evidence of a further fracturing of the three century-old union between Scotland and England.

But there is already no hiding internal party tensions. Most Tory MSPs have backed Ross’s call for Johnson to resign, while Alistair Jack, Scotland secretary and a close Johnson ally, was the only Scottish Tory MP to publicly back him after the latest partygate revelations.

One Scottish Tory insider said the MPs’ refusal to support the prime minister spoke to their split loyalties between Scotland and the party in Westminster. “We’ve in a very difficult position. We have to be mindful of how badly the row plays at home, but we don’t want to hand the Nats more ammunition over parties.”

Rees-Mogg’s dismissal of Ross highlighted an ideological split over how the Conservative party should be run across the UK, with the cabinet minister sceptical about the merits of devolution.

“People like Jacob, and Boris to a certain extent, think that there should be one Conservative party in Westminster for the whole country,” a former cabinet minister said. “Their view of unionism is out of step with the reality of where it is today.”

Such strains are likely to grow if Johnson remains as prime minister. James Johnson, who served as May’s pollster, warned that the split with Ross could prove disastrous at the next general election, due no later than 2024.

“You can’t have a Scottish Tory leader saying ‘Vote Conservative’ at a general election if they’ve called for their national leader to resign,” he said. “This makes Johnson fighting the next election untenable, unless the party accepts a total wipeout in Scotland.”

Even if Johnson is replaced, tensions will remain. Andy Maciver, a lobbyist and former Scottish Conservative head of communications, said Rees-Mogg’s comments reflected what he said was a “dominant” dismissive view of devolution within the Westminster party.

Maciver advocates a Canadian-style approach where a new centre-right party would contest Holyrood elections while the UK Conservatives continued to compete in Scottish seats at general elections.

He said such an approach would carry risks, but support for it was growing as more Scottish Tories concluded that sticking with the UK party meant never winning power at Holyrood.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work, but I’m sure that what we’ve got right now is not working — and it’s never going to work,” Maciver said.

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