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EDINBURGH — Scottish Tories are unlikely to be partying as the local election results roll in on Friday.
The so-called Partygate scandal over coronavirus rule-breaching gatherings at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Westminster government looks set to dent his credibility as a staunch defender of the shaky union between Scotland and the rest of the U.K.
And it’s on track to hurt Johnson’s frenemy, the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, as every local council in Scotland is contested.
A number of polls point to a drop in support for the Scottish Conservatives since the scandal erupted. As voters cast their ballots today, there are fears the party could fall to third place.
That would put them behind both the dominant pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Labour, which the Tories had managed to replace as the main pro-Union force in Scottish politics after decades in obscurity.
Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, put his neck on the line at the height of the Partygate scandal — but he’s promptly wound it back in again.
He was one of the first senior Tories to openly call for Johnson to go in January, saying the PM’s position was “untenable” following an admission he had attended a lockdown-busting party.
Weeks later, he reversed his position, citing the seriousness of the war in Ukraine, and has been besieged with questions about the u-turn throughout the campaign.
“The easiest thing for me would be to join those calls and to say Boris Johnson has to go and to maintain that position — I’d have no difficult questions, the election media interviews would be a breeze,” Ross told POLITICO.
His position is that although he feels “personal anger” at Johnson’s actions during lockdown, he doesn’t believe it would be right to “destabilize” the U.K. government in the middle of the conflict by sparking a Conservative leadership election.
Scots seem to disagree — a Savanta ComRes poll released Wednesday suggests around three quarters (72 percent) of Scots believe Johnson should resign.
Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Tory leader credited with reviving the party’s fortunes north of the border, also disagrees. She has accused Johnson — long a target of her criticism — of “making a mockery” of people who followed the lockdown rules.
“I think Douglas has been put in a terrible position,” Davidson told journalists while on a campaign visit with Ross in April, the day after Johnson was fined by the police.
“[It’s] probably the hardest position that any Scottish leader ever has been in, and as somebody who was the leader for eight years, I know what it’s like to have been dumped in it by colleagues down south,” she added.
To illustrate the difficulty, an angry voter told Ross and Davidson to “take this crap away with you” as they handed out leaflets in Edinburgh.
Indeed, being “dumped in it” by Johnson could help undo much of Davidson’s work in securing the Tories as the main opposition to the SNP.
Both of Scotland’s other main pro-union parties — Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats — believe they are gaining ground at the expense of the Tories.
“The one place that [Johnson] has to worry about is Scotland,” John Curtice, one of the U.K.’s most respected pollsters, told a podcast. He added that “the Conservatives position hitherto as the undisputed principle voice of unionism north of the border” is now under threat.
Ross denies that his party is set to fall behind Labour in the share of local council seats and points to similar predictions made before 2021’s Scottish parliamentary election.
In that election, the Scottish Tories defied some polls which suggested they would fall behind Labour and comfortably held on to second place — while Labour endured their worst ever result.
Shifting the focus
In spite of the focus on Johnson and Partygate, Ross has tried to run a tight campaign focusing on a mixture of hyper-local issues — trash collections, potholes and more — and a few specific national issues where the party feels it can target the ruling SNP.
Yet even when the Tories have had an opportunity to be heard on issues beyond Partygate or Johnson, it’s not always been smooth sailing.
In the week before election day, Ross stumbled over his words while struggling to explain his party’s controversial policy on transgender people and their access to public facilities. Asked in a BBC interview whether a trans woman is a woman, Ross told a BBC interviewer: “No. She is a male who has changed her sex but she has not changed her gender.”
After saying he had misspoken in the BBC interview, Ross clarified to POLITICO that his party’s policy would see transgender people effectively barred from using any toilets or facilities that are not classified as “gender-neutral” in public buildings run by Conservative councils.
Critics including the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader Kirsten Oswald and LGBTQ+ campaigners have argued that this policy would breach discrimination laws. Tim Hopkins, director of NGO the Equality Network, said: “A policy to force all trans people to use the gender-neutral toilets would be unlawful under the Equality Act as well as impractical.” Ross argues that the policy would be lawful.
The issue of transgender rights has become a key battleground in Scottish politics, with the SNP Scottish government currently pursuing contentious reforms that would introduce self-identification for trans people. The Scottish Tories are the only major Scottish party opposed to the reforms.
Another key pillar of the Tory campaign is a focus on the declining budgets of local authorities.
All 32 of Scotland’s local councils, including ones controlled by the SNP, said in December that they “cannot accept” the budget proposed by the Scottish government for all councils, which they consider a real-terms cut. The Scottish government has rejected figures set out by Cosla, the umbrella body of Scotland’s councils.
But Ross argues the SNP government is effectively asking Scottish councils “to do an awful lot more with less money” — leading to services like bin collections being reduced across the country.
Despite a clear attempt to focus on funding cuts and other issues where there’s clear blue water between the Tories and the SNP, Ross has remained on the backfoot answering questions about Partygate and Boris Johnson.
Asked if he forgives Johnson, the first prime minister to be fined by police in office, Ross is clear. “No. I’ve got no individual case — personally I didn’t lose anyone thankfully to COVID, but I know constituents who have. So on their behalf, I really am angry at what the prime minister did, what members of the government did, what civil servants did, what staff did in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office. And that’s why this doesn’t disappear, it doesn’t just go away.” He doesn’t rule out revisiting his position on the prime minister down the line.
If grim forecasts of a local election drubbing prove right, that rethink may come sooner rather than later.