Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson now has a headache with Boris Johnson likely to replace Theresa May, writes John McLellan, who may also have some explaining to do as a Conservative councillor after calling the former Foreign Secretary shameless, calculating and cynical.
At the height of Labour’s pre-Iraq War Blair-Brown pomp there was pressure for new legislation to curb “the power of the press” by limiting media ownership, particularly aimed at Rupert Murdoch, and on a visit to the Commons I bumped into the late Linlithgow MP Tam Dalyell who asked my views.
He was no fan of the Australian media mogul, but I said it looked like law being framed to tackle one man which was not a good basis for legislation and would have unintended consequences. I awaited the rebuttal as he sucked on the leg of his glasses, staring at the roof in deep thought for what seemed like an age. “I agree. Thank you,” he said.
The exchange came up this week in a discussion with a senior Westminster adviser about the seemingly open road to Number 10 for Boris Johnson, shortly before the Prime Minister bowed to the inevitable after Tuesday night’s disastrous PWC speech at which the now defunct Withdrawal Agreement Bill details were unveiled. By yesterday morning’s resignation announcement, even the most loyal of loyal Conservatives had abandoned any pretence of support for the Prime Minister; senior colleagues who had stuck by her were appalled that what she said went much further than what they thought had been agreed, while out in the field the WAB bamboozled members on the campaign trail who didn’t know what the party was representing other than it was something other than a No Deal Brexit or Remain.
Shelving the Bill when the extent of the Cabinet rebellion became clear only deepened the sense of her isolation, if that was at all possible. If history is kind to Mrs May it will record a dogged determination to do her duty to deliver the EU referendum result and, to borrow from Jacob Rees-Mogg, to fight on like General Gordon at Khartoum against insurmountable odds until there was nowhere to go. It was this sense that inspired the heart-felt cheers which greeted her at the Scottish party conference in Aberdeen this month.
But a colder analysis will conclude that the 2017 election was her Isandlwana in which complacency led to the slaughter of seemingly superior forces. It would remember a Prime Minister who took an election victory for granted, threw away a majority, failed to face down the Eurocrats and whose inability to connect with and listen to those around her led not to a Mafeking-like lifting of a siege but twists and turns which only tightened the ligature.
For all the emotion of yesterday’s resignation, as Iain Duncan-Smith might say the sofa has been moved from the door and the party craves strong, clear leadership. A recent YouGov poll confirmed what has been apparent for some weeks from surveys on the Conservative Home website, that Mr Johnson is by some way the membership’s most popular choice and it means “Stop Boris” leadership candidates will be taking on the membership even if they manage to eliminate him before the final two-horse run-off.
This is an obvious headache for Ruth Davidson, who as good as called him a liar in the EU Referendum campaign, and for her deputy Jackson Carlaw who in the wake of the Burka row said “I’ve had enough of him.” It gives me a bit of a problem too, having variously described him in these columns as shameless, calculating and cynical. Oops. What Cllr McLellan was trying to say, Prime Minister, is that you display the essential qualities for… ahem… decisive statesmanship…
Stephen Kerr MP has called for a new Bavarian CSU-style relationship, while ex-party chairman Peter Duncan renewed his long-standing call for a Scottish breakaway to avoid an “existential crisis”. But is a return to the pre-1965 days of the old separate Unionist party, whose close association allowed both Alec Douglas-Home and Andrew Bonar Law to be Conservative Prime Ministers, really unavoidable because the Blond Bombshell might bomb in Scotland?
Just recently I spoke to the Scottish boss of a very successful public relations company, a Conservative sympathiser but by no means a right-wing Brexiteer and his view was clear. “As much as it pains me to say it, but Boris is your next leader because he cuts through.” Joker or genius, as his support continues to grow, it looks like he’ll get the chance to answer the question on the biggest stage of all.
And so back to the Tam Dalyell conversation; splitting the party would be a response to the appointment of one man, a knee-jerk reaction to a situation which, for good or bad, will inevitably pass. But thanks to the implosion of the Labour Party what will not pass is the SNP’s domination of the centre-left and therefore the possibility of an independence referendum will be with us for years. It is simply not tenable for a Unionist party to break away while arguing it would be a grave mistake if the country was to do the same. Nor, like the independence argument itself, is it financially advisable.
It does not, however, rule out developing the relationship between the UK umbrella and the Scottish arm of the party under a strong Scottish leader which reflects devolution while the bloc of Scottish MPs represent positions on reserved matters based on differing circumstances in Scotland.
My conversations with voters this week are hardly definitive, but the talk of a mass Conservative defection was not borne out. High levels of unhappiness with the Brexit situation in face-to-face discussions a fortnight ago this week had hardened into support as people actually went out to vote. Yes, some previous supporters I spoke to who were not backing the party this time were more likely not to have voted on Thursday than to have switched, but their dislike of the SNP was undiluted.
However, even allowing for margins of error, the polls aren’t lying about the collapse of Conservative support in England this week, and we’ll get the full gory picture on Sunday when the European Election results are revealed. But as the Haddington by-election showed, these are very different conditions to domestic elections and there is no sign that Ruth Davidson’s popularity is dimming.
Compared to previous years, the Aberdeen conference showed the Scottish Conservative Party is in good spirit and Boris or no Boris there is no need to lose our nerve.