Is Douglas Ross any more than Ruth Davidson’s sock puppet?

Sunday National, 2nd August 2020.

If you’re a connoisseur of political assassinations, you’ve got to admit it was neatly done. Bye bye, Old Yeller. The golden Labrador was led solemnly out into the backyard one last time. Jackson Carlaw said it was a “painful conclusion” to demit the Scottish Tory leadership. If it felt painful – then it looked excruciating. Back in January, he boasted that he’d “spent the last 18 months taking on Nicola Sturgeon. I am asking you now to let me spend the next 18 months taking her down.” The Scottish Tories didn’t even grant him six. Politics can be a rough trade.

The footage from the media interviews which followed looked like an over-colourised reel from the Moscow show trials. Red faced and glassy-eyed, the fallen comrade is forced to read out the confession fraternally prepared for them by their assassins, accepting that their public humiliation is entirely merited. “I am not, in the present circumstances, the person best placed to lead that case over these next vital months in Scottish politics prior to the Holyrood elections,” he said. The party needs a “younger and fresher voice.”

And that’s only the beginning of the hypocrisy and the crocodile tears, as the friends and colleagues who have been working at your destruction behind the scenes take to the airwaves to commend a “tremendous servant” for the “dignity” his resignation. Carlaw’s enforced retirement came with no carriage clock and no hand-written letter from the chairman of the board. All the gags I’d saved up for the 2021 Holyrood election campaign suddenly became redundant. We’re both bereft.

PJ O’Rourke argues that, all things being equal, “age and guile beat youth, innocence, and a bad haircut.” The Scottish Tories have taken a different view. Within minutes of Carlaw being unsentimentally tumbled into a taxi, bag and baggage, the 37-year-old Moray MP Douglas Ross was being anointed as the heir presumptive. The political calculations behind this vision of Ross as the great white hope are baffling – and testament to the degree of panic seemingly gripping Holyrood’s largest opposition party.

According to Douglas Ross, his “first act on Thursday evening after Jackson Carlaw honourably announced his resignation was to speak to Ruth Davidson and ask her to support me in my plans.” If this is a timeline you can believe in – I can only commend your gullibility. You don’t force Jackson to choke out an endorsement for a “younger and fresher voice” without already having the identity of that voice firmly in mind. The magic plan seems to be that Davidson will do a final burst of spadework for Ross in Holyrood – and trailing clouds of glory, the Moray MP will reappear in the chamber after the election, having seen off the risk of an SNP majority on a clear platform for independence, and the constitutional crisis that outcome is certain to generate.

Scraping through Ross’s political record doesn’t exactly yield up a clear picture of the political preoccupations and outlook of the chosen one. A lapsed Liberal Democrat with a background in the Agricultural College, Ross was ten years in his local council. During his short stint in the Scottish Parliament, he made no real contributions of note, before leaping at the opportunity at a Westminster seat. A Remain voter now reconciled to Brexit, he was congenial enough to Boris Johnson to find a warm corner in his government, and found Dominic Cummings’ visually-impaired safari around the north east of England uncongenial enough to resign his post as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland earlier this year.

On policy, he tells us he wants “to show clearly to everyone in Scotland, no matter where they live or who they are, that if they want to move on from the divisions of the past and focus on the issues that really matter; a strong economy, good schools, safe streets and a world-leading NHS then the Scottish Conservatives will be their voice.” In its utter banality, this pitch is entirely in keeping with the depth of Scottish Tory policy thinking since 2011.

His other policy ideas have been more controversial. It was meant to be a playful interview in 2017. Quickfire questions on daft topics, the kind of thing politicians participate in to burnish their credentials as good-hearted ordinary punters who don’t take themselves too seriously. Nothing should have come of it. We learned, for example, that if you fire up the Karaoke machine, Douglas Ross’s song is Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again” and that he doesn’t share his wife’s enthusiasm for Robbie Williams. “If you were a Prime Minister for a day, without any repercussions, what would you do?” Ross’s millennial interviewer enquired in a bright and happy voice.

A range of more and less deranged Tory answers would have been acceptable here. “Reintroduce the death penalty.”  “Abolish the Human Rights Act.” “Invade France.” “Make my brother into a baron.” Admissible vaseline-tinted responses could have included “triple funding for cancer research.” “Free money for every child.” “World peace.” But put on the spot by this softball question, Ross’s political imagination leapt immediately to “tougher enforcement against gypsy travellers.” He has since apologised for his use of language and the lack of context for this eye-peeling answer, but that’s hardly the point. The late Maya Angelou has a line worth remembering, whether in your personal or political life: “when people show you who they are, believe them.”

This weekend, Mr Ross launched his leadership website. We see him gazing, statesmanlike, into the middle distance. But the tone and emphasis of this political unknown’s pitch for national leadership strikes me as decidedly weird. Reading to his campaign messages, if you were half cut or half asleep, you could be forgiven for thinking Ross was running to be Ruth Davidson’s deputy. Indeed, Ross seems to regard the opportunity to reactivate Davidson as one of the principal attractions of his leadership.

He tells us that he wants Davidson “back on the park, so we have the best chance of setting out a positive, strong message to all Scotland”, arguing that if he’s elected, “it will very much be a joint ticket.” “We will get our best striker back on the pitch,” he says. Now I’m no expert on footballing matters – but the political analysis behind these tortured soccer metaphors strikes me as a little odd.

Why would a leadership campaign launched by a comparative unknown spend the greater part of its energy gushing about the indispensable virtues of a predecessor who is leaving Holyrood in a handful of months? Davidson’s blessing must give Ross an advantage if the race is internally contested – but if the new-minted Baroness is the party’s “best striker,” then what precisely is Douglas Ross’s role here? Anonymous defender? Nifty midfielder? Tumbledown linesman? Anonymous punter belting out the staunch old songs on the terraces? The second best candidate for the job? Just who’s supposed to be running this show anyway?

The Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition Party – briefly rebranded as the Ruth Davidson for First Minister Party – now seems to have transformed into the Ruth Davidson for Douglas Ross for a Strong Opposition Party. Or the Douglas Ross for Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition Party. Is the magic plan that Lady Davidson of Christ-Knows-Where for Christ-Knows-What will pretend she’s leading the Scottish Tory Party into May, hoping that the voting punters don’t notice that she’s actually abandoning her Edinburgh Central seat just as they cast their votes? How can you run on a joint ticket with someone who is giving up the ghost and graduating into an ermine overcoat when the voters go the polls?

There is a palpable air of nostalgia and lack of confidence in Ross’s opening pitch, harkening back to the happier days when Brexit wasn’t biting, when Boris wasn’t PM, the headlines and polling-lines were kinder, and the UK government’s faltering communications around coronavirus hadn’t scraped off what shine remains on Her Majesty’s Government. Ross has explicitly positioned himself as the “don’t you wish Ruth Davidson didn’t resign?” candidate. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to experience that as an inspirational vision for the future. For the Scottish Tories, this is a rear-guard action now.

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