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Farewell Jackson Carlaw: where now for the Scots Tories?

Adam Losekoot

On Thursday Jackson Carlaw announced his immediate resignation as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. He released a statement wherein he concluded that he was stepping back from his duties as he did not feel he was the correct person to defend the United Kingdom in Scotland. Carlaw’s statement reads as a set of instructions to his successor; “to make the case for the Scottish Conservatives and the Union better than me”. It is clear from his statement and from his political career that Jackson Carlaw placed the sanctity of the union between Scotland and England above most anything else. It is therefore unsurprising that his resignation comes at a time when polling expert Professor John Curtice has declared that the union has never been weaker.

Carlaw has been involved in politics for much of his adult life, having first become involved in his local Conservative branch in East Renfrewshire as a teenager. He has served in multiple positions within the Scottish Conservative party at both national and regional levels and his website describes him as “a reasonable cook”.

Jackson Carlaw entered Holyrood as MSP for Eastwood in 2007 and has held the seat ever since. He became Ruth Davidson’s deputy leader in 2011 and acted as interim leader on multiple occasions until he was finally elected as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party in February of this year.

Carlaw didn’t achieve much during his few months in the job, possibly because much of this period was dominated by the global pandemic. As leader of the second largest party in Holyrood he was always the first to question the First Minister during FMQs and remained committed to questioning Nicola Sturgeon as rigorously as he could. However, this does not appear to have won his party much support, having lost half of their seats in December’s General Election and recent polls suggesting a similar fate for the Holyrood election in 2021.

Given how poorly his party is doing in the polls it then comes as little surprise that Carlaw may have wished to hand the job over to someone who could better defend the union. There are suggestions, however, that the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives may have been pushed by senior figures within the UK Tory party as they too felt that he was not capable of convincing Scots to remain in the union. Michelle Ballantyne touted this theory live on The Nine, the same day as Carlaw’s resignation, where she asserted that: “he was pushed”. Ballantyne went on to say that: “we got no warning, there was no conversation. We got a press release saying that he was resigning”.

Ballantyne’s comments would suggest there are fractures within the Scottish Tories. She went on to condemn the fact that within minutes of the announcement being made, some names were already being touted as replacements. She suggested that this was a case where “party high heidyins make a decision and foist it on everybody else” and that the entire thing had been planned and executed by senior party members in Westminster (almost sounds like a nationalist line – strange times).

Amongst the names being touted to replace Carlaw (of which there are really only two) are those of Douglas Ross, (MP for Moray) and the former Scottish Conservative and Unionist party leader, Ruth Davidson MSP. These are odd suggestions in their own right, given that Davidson is known to have been offered a peerage in the House of Lords and resigned the leader position in 2018, claiming she wanted to spend more time with her family. Meanwhile Douglas Ross is the only UK cabinet minister to have resigned over the Dominic Cummings scandal, prompting No. 10 to call him a “nobody”. What makes the entire thing weirder still is that the current proposal is for Ross to be parachuted into the top job whilst Davidson covers for him at FMQs. He has announced that he intends to stand for a Holyrood seat in 2021, at which point he would take over from Davidson and she has said she will then accept her seat in the Lords.

It is not unheard of for an MP to be the leader of a Scottish party, Scottish Labour did it in 2014 with Jim Murphy, however this was followed by a landslide defeat in 2015 leading to the party retaining only 1 of their 41 seats in Westminster. What remains to be seen is whether Douglas Ross is capable of reversing the party’s fortunes.

This must come as a serious blow to the Scottish Tories’ current deputy co-leaders, Annie Wells and Liam Kerr, as they have been completely ignored in the rush to find a replacement for Carlaw. In fact, this must come as a blow to all 31 of their MSPs as it would appear that whoever is behind this regime change doesn’t rate any of them highly enough to challenge Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, instead choosing to parachute an MP into the top job.

Carlaw’s resignation appears to be a sign that London has lost faith in his ability (and indeed that of almost anyone in Holyrood) to convince Scots to support Boris, Brexit and the Union. Whoever replaces him has an incredibly difficult job ahead of them. It will take a massive shift in public opinion to return the Scottish Conservatives to a strong position at either Holyrood or Westminster and it is as yet unclear if any of them are capable of the task.

Image: Getty Images via BBC News

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