Sunday National, 17th April 2022.
It has been a vintage political week for Douglas Ross. As the Scottish Tory leader was trying to launch his local government election campaign, officers from Scotland Yard began knocking on the doors of Downing Street with some special correspondence for the Prime Minister, his Chancellor, and 48 other people at the heart of government.
Contrary to the various denials which have emanated from the government, the police investigation has concluded that the law was broken. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the exchequer have both been fined for social gatherings which they both flatly denied had taken place. There are still more unknowns. More fines may still be in prospect. We don’t yet know how many more, and we don’t know how long the Met are going to eke out their inquiry.
When Westminster resumes on Tuesday next week, the UK government will face questions not only about its boozy assignations mid-lockdown, but demands to know whether the Prime Minister misled parliament about the routine merrymaking which got them through lockdown.
We don’t need to wait for backbench questions to clear this one up for us. The basic facts are clear. He lied. We know he lied. They know he lied. They know we know he lied, and he knows we know it. When the Met announced it was investigating Downing Street, several Tory MPs told us we should suspend judgement until we had “the full facts” about what went on in the Downing Street summer camp. Now we have all the facts, they just want us to suspend judgement.
So Downing Street has dug in along three defensive lines. First, we’re supposed to believe the Prime Minister is a fool who didn’t understand the restrictions his government were imposing on the rest of the country. Ignorance of the law, it seems, is now an excuse. When Johnson flatly denied any rule-breaking, he was making an innocent error of interpretation. Deuced technical things, those lockdown restrictions his Health Secretary made. Could happen to any of us.
Allied to this, their second main line of defence is minimisation. Rees-Mogg and his creatures are leading on this one. They’d like you to think critics of the PM are engaging in piffling priggery. If there was a sin, it was venial rather than mortal. It was just a half hour, just a couple of friends and colleagues, just ten minutes, just cake for a sick man, just like a fine for speeding, just like getting a ticket for being caught with a stealthy bottle of pinot grigio on Kelvingrove Park on a sunny day, just like being caught short in the street before you reach the pissoir. Because the Conservative Party, as we know, is well-known for being intensely relaxed about law-breaking.
The third line of defence – which the client press lapped up and loyally sold to their readerships this week – is to pretend we’re at war in Ukraine, to pretend Boris Johnson is the indispensable field marshal coordinating Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation – and hope nobody notices we’re not and he isn’t.
It is characteristic of the nasty impulses of this Conservative Party that they’ve managed to devise a defence of the government which implies that Johnson’s critics are laying into “a national leader in wartime” and therefore must be unpatriotic snowflake remoaners who probably want to reverse Brexit. If this sounds familiar to you, it should. No party in UK politics more effectively weaponises direct or implied attacks on the patriotism of their opponents than the Tories.
It’s a page from their well-thumbed playbook of political deflection – just like the sudden appearance of the Home Office’s plan for Rwanda, which is designed to remind the stark-staring right of the party and Britain’s proudly xenophobic press that this is the kind of horrendous crackpot policy they elected Johnson to deliver, and which they’d never be able to squeeze out of a more moderate No 10 regime. I’ve joked in the past that the next thing on the Home Office agenda is refitting Britain’s a fleet of offshore prison hulks. I’m now concerned I’ve given Priti Patel ideas.
Which brings us back to Douglas Ross, who has experienced exquisite anguishes this week trying to explain and justify his shifting positions on Boris Johnson’s future. Although largely overlooked in the papers this week, it is worth noticing that the stress positions Ross has worked himself into here are entirely self-inflicted. Even in Tory circles, they raise basic questions about his political judgement.
Think this through from his perspective. Ross was always going to be asked what he thought about the behaviour in Number 10. He would always have had to work up a defensible answer about the PM’s future. Several alternative approaches to the political difficulty of the situation were circulating at the time. Ross could have called on people to wait for the findings of the official inquiry, suspended judgement, sat on his hands until he was forced by circumstances to take a firm position. It isn’t exactly courageous – but it would certainly have done the job.
What he didn’t need to do is go hard and fast in against the Prime Minister in January, and then hastily retract his resignation demands in March before the police had made any findings of fact about what happened.
So there are at least two reasonably interesting questions about Ross’s decision-making around this affair. First, why was he so speedy out of the traps to describe Boris Johnson’s position as “untenable” in January after the bring-your-own-bucket lockdown seshes in Downing Street were first uncovered? And having first adopted a clear position – what precisely persuaded Ross to recant it before he knew for sure whether the police would be writing up penalty notices for the inner cabinet?
In going on the record to say that if Boris Johnson “did attend that party, he couldn’t continue as prime minister,” Ross was not only going against his own brand as a Johnson loyalist. He was also exposing himself to the real possibility – stronger, the likelihood – that the Prime Minister would survive his colleagues’ half-hearted attempt to turn him over, leaving the Scottish Tory leader with responsibility for defending what he told the public was indefensible conduct. This is Machiavelli 101. You have to take him down – or live with the consequences of his survival. Ross never seemed to seriously reckon with this fact. Increasingly, I wonder if he was trying to channel his predecessor but instantly regretted doing so. Is a sense of living in Ruth Davidson’s political shadow affecting his judgement?
But that doesn’t explain the second premature shift. Before we had any idea what the Metropolitan Police investigation might uncover, there were early signs that Ross was regretting his intervention as early as February. Dark threats that the Prime Minister might be banished from the Scottish Tory conference were promptly lifted, and Johnson dragged his gusset up to Aberdeen. The invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster for its country’s people, but it appears to have furnished Ross with the excuse he was looking for to recall his letter to the 1922 Committee and to slipstream back in line behind the administration. His line is “now is not the time to be calling for him to resign.” Johnson has undergone a beautiful metamorphosis too. According to the Scottish Tory leader, he now believes Johnson is a “truthful man.”
This isn’t the first time Ross has demonstrated an itchy trigger finger, and shown a disposition to act in haste and repent at leisure. You will remember he instructed his party whips to lodge a no confidence motion in Nicola Sturgeon last year – before the independent report into her conduct had been published. He blew it and managed to isolate his party instead of uniting the opposition against the government.
He lost friends in his party by breaking company with the Prime Minister – and he has now lost face with everyone else by scuttling back into line. Having junked his reputation as a reliable party man, Ross has lost what plaudits he may have gained for independence of mind. Because of his reckless vacillations – and because of these alone – he’s squandered all the political benefits loyalty and disloyalty might have won him.