Rees-Mogg’s Douglas Ross attack betrays desperation to change narrative
It was a pretty comprehensive put-down from an erstwhile colleague. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader and flag-carrier for the rebellion against Boris Johnson, is “a lightweight figure” of little consequence. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons and one of the prime minister’s closest allies, did very little to mask his disdain for Ross when he said so.
Within hours of Ross’s demand for Johnson to resign, Rees-Mogg had gone on the attack. “I don’t think Douglas Ross is a big figure,” he told the broadcaster LBC. “He has been constantly in opposition to the prime minister, against Brexit; he is not somebody you would expect to say helpful things about the prime minister.”
Some hours later Rees-Mogg doubled down. Interviewed by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight, he said: “Douglas Ross has always been quite a lightweight figure.” Alister Jack, the Scotland secretary and one of Ross’s five Scottish colleagues at Westminster, was “a much more substantial and important figure in this”.
That dismissive and patronising tone grabbed people’s attention. It was intended to. It was a diversion designed to shift the story on to one individual. Ross was serially disloyal, Rees-Mogg implied; he had resigned as a junior minister in Johnson’s government in May 2020 over Dominic Cummings’ rule-breaking drive to Barnard Castle.
Setting aside the inaccuracy of Rees-Mogg’s charge that Ross has not championed Brexit – he has – this strategy was intended to conceal a far more uncomfortable truth for Johnson, his cabinet and the Tory party at large: with the exception of Jack and perhaps one or two others, Ross has near unanimous support within the Scottish party. The party of the union is now deeply disunited.
Ross has been backed by both his predecessors as Scottish Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson, who was appointed by Johnson to the House of Lords. Although not all 30 other Tory MSPs have yet publicly lined up behind Ross’s banner, at least 26 have.
Davidson, perhaps with an eye on her new gig as a Times Radio host, was the first to openly question Johnson’s position this week. She delivered a remarkable 13 Westminster seats in the 2017, helping Theresa May narrowly win that general election, and had once been mooted as a future prime minister. Under her leadership, the Tories pulled off the remarkable feat of replacing Labour as the main opposition at Holyrood, doubling its seats.
This Scottish Tory revolt was undoubtedly coordinated. It is also freighted with risk. The evidence that this civil war is truly fratricidal became clear when Michael Gove, a fellow Scot, became the first to slap Ross down. Asked about Ross’s calls for Johnson to quit, Gove said: “My instant response is he’s in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London.”
The revolt is at a very delicate stage. Apart from Jack’s presumed loyalty to Johnson, Scotland’s four other Tory MPs – Andrew Bowie, David Duguid, John Lamont and David Mundell – have kept quiet, as have nearly all other Tory MPs. With the exception of Bowie, they also hold junior roles in the government so are watching and waiting, to see if other revelations emerge and then for the results of the investigation into partygate by the senior mandarin Sue Gray.
Nonetheless, they share Ross and Davidson’s anxieties. They insist Johnson’s very poor reputation among Scottish voters is “priced in” but they have real fears the successive revelations about No 10’s disdain for its own lockdown regulations, the mishandling of the Owen Paterson crisis and Johnson’s generally shambolic leadership over Brexit are doing deep damage to the party’s brand as a whole, and thus to Scottish voters’ confidence in the union.
They also face an immediate challenge holding their seats in May’s Scottish council elections, and are watching the polls give the UK Labour party a 10-point lead.
While Ross successfully defended all 31 Scottish Tory seats at the last Holyrood elections against expectations, he does not have Davidson’s appeal to liberal voters or her subtlety. Ross’s domestic strategy is to appeal to an arch-unionist base. So any loss of confidence in the Tory brand at UK level is doubly damaging.
The significance of the stakes for the pro-union camp were summed up by Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole. He chastised Rees-Mogg for attacking Ross: “As someone who apparently loves the union, his personal attack on Douglas ... is a gift to the petty nationalists in the SNP who want to break this country up.”