Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

The outburst 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 which, according to supporters, is the only way to revive Tory fortunes in the devastated nation.

Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader, Wednesday asked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign about his attendance at a Downing Street party during a coronavirus lock-in 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 uproar among Scottish Conservatives over the impact of the prime minister’s tenure on the party’s popularity in Scotland. An opinion poll for the Sunday Mail published late last month – ahead of the latest “partygate” revelations – suggested that only 17 per cent of voters in Scotland would support the Conservatives in a general election in the UK, a result that would see the loss of all six Scottish Tories seats can bring.

“The prime minister has allowed a feeling to develop and grow that he believes the rules do not apply to him,” said Adam Tomkins, a former Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament who resigned last year. “It is unforgivably bad. . . unforgivable folly ”.

The Scottish Conservatives choose their own leader and set their own policies on issues that are referred to Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh, but follow the British party leadership at Westminster.

Tomkins and other Scottish Conservatives, including former MP Peter Duncan, say the British party’s divorce offers the only route to seriously challenge for power in Holyrood.

Policies pursued by the Tories in Westminster that are unpopular in Scotland or that do not support devolution have tarnished the conservative brand at Holyrood, they believe, preventing the party from exploiting broad potential support for a Scottish center-right party.

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

Some Scottish Tory MSPs have said the party’s popularity in Scotland had previously been undermined by British policies such as the imposition of the “bedroom tax”, a reduction in housing benefit for tenants of public housing who are 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 completely defeated by Ruth Davidson, who called for continued unity.

Davidson successfully led the Scottish Conservatives to eclipse Labor as the second largest party at Holyrood, but retired in 2019 with it still far behind the ruling Scottish National Party and with little prospect of winning power in Edinburgh.

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

“I still believe that to separate from the British party. . . would be seen by voters as both hollow and cynical, “Davidson wrote, hoping that Johnson’s replacement as party leader could restore the Conservatives'” moral authority. “

A Scottish Conservative split from the British party would be seized by independence supporters as proof of a further breach of the three-century-old union between Scotland and England.

But there is already no internal party tension hiding. Most Tory MSPs supported Ross’ call for Johnson to resign, while Alistair Jack, Scotland secretary and a close Johnson ally, was the only Scottish Tory MP to publicly support him after the latest party hole revelations. .

One Scottish Tory insider said the MPs’ refusal to support the prime minister spoke of their divided loyalty between Scotland and the Westminster party. “We are in a very difficult position. We have to be aware of how bad the driving is at home, but we no longer want to hand over ammunition to the Nats over parties. ”

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

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

Such tribes are likely to grow if Johnson remains prime minister. James Johnson, who served as May’s pollster, warned that the split with Ross could be disastrous in the next general election, which should be no later than 2024.

“You can not make a Scottish Tory leader say ‘Vote Conservative’ in a general election if they have asked their national leader to resign,” he said. “It makes Johnson’s fight against the next election unbearable unless the party accepts a total annihilation in Scotland.”

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

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

He said such an approach would pose risks, but support for it grew as more Scottish Tories came to the conclusion that staying with the UK party meant never winning power at Holyrood.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work, but I’m sure what we have now is not going to work – and it’s never going to work,” Maciver said.

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