Scottish Tory leader distances himself from Boris Johnson with swipe at Brexit

Douglas Ross accused Westminster of undermining the union and called for a U-turn on support for workers during coronavirus lockdowns.

Scottish Tory leader distances himself from Boris Johnson with swipe at Brexit

Douglas Ross is a Conservative rebel with a cause — aiming to reverse the surge in support for Scottish independence by making clear he is not Boris Johnson.

The Scottish Conservative leader on Monday accused Westminster of undermining the union with a “winner takes it all” approach to Brexit negotiations.

The comments, delivered in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank, mark the latest attempt to differentiate the Scottish Tories from the U.K. administration led by Johnson, whose own unpopularity in Scotland shows up in polls as a key factor in rising support for independence.

“There is no getting away from the fact that Brexit, and how it has been delivered, has undermined the perception that there are common shared values that unite us,” Ross said. “We did not build a consensus around delivering Brexit. Instead there has been a ‘winner takes it all’ approach.”

Such an approach had, he argued, “alienated former Remain supporters who still feel aggrieved at the referendum result,” with the SNP becoming an “outlet for that anger and frustration” in Scotland.

Ross also called on Johnson to involve First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government in post-Brexit trade negotiations, as part of a plan to “empower” devolved administrations, and argued for the Scottish government to have a more formal say in the country’s immigration system.

The Scottish Conservative leader also warned his Westminster colleagues that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the “weakest points” of the devolution settlement between Scotland and the rest of the U.K.

Making the case for Scotland to be treated “the same as England” in the support given to workers during the coronavirus pandemic, he urged Westminster to extend its furlough scheme if Scotland follows England into a renewed national lockdown.

The Scottish Conservative leader said: “Now that the scheme has been extended to cover the impact of a second lockdown in England, how could a unionist government not restart the scheme if a second lockdown is required in Scotland?”

Ross argued: “The COVID-19 crisis has put the structures for interaction between the U.K. Government, devolved administrations and indeed the English mayoralties to the ultimate test, and I think that even the most committed defender of the current system would admit that they have been found wanting.”

Increasing distance

Since the outset of the first wave of coronavirus back in March, support for an independent Scotland has gone from being level pegging to eight points ahead in POLITICO’s poll of polls, and Ross, who clinched the Scottish Conservative leadership in August, has been increasingly vocal in his attempts to differentiate the party.

Ross resigned as a minister in the U.K. government this summer after Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, controversially made a trip from London to the north-east of England.

After then taking on the job of Scottish Tory leader in August, he has since criticized English colleagues for treating the union as an “afterthought;” ended his party’s opposition to free university tuition; rebelled on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill; told the Guardian again that Cummings should have resigned back in May; backed footballer Marcus Rashford‘s campaign for the government to expand free school meals; called on Johnson to permanently increase state welfare; and now backed the Scottish government’s stance on furlough.

Johnson is unpopular in Scotland, while the polling ratings of Sturgeon have soared as she contrasts her own response to the pandemic to that of Johnson and England.

In polling published by POLITICO last week, 84 percent of Scottish swing voters said they felt the U.K. government has handled the pandemic badly — compared to 74 percent who say the Scottish government has handled it well.

In attempting to emphasize the differences between himself and an unpopular U.K. government, Ross is seeking to deprive the SNP of the majority they are predicted to win when Scots vote in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections.

Early opinion surveys, however, suggest he has a mountain to climb. POLITICO’s polling included questions on which well known political and cultural figures could sway undecided voters in any new independence referendum.

At the bottom of the table — below former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, ex-Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson and U.K. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove — sits Ross. The Scottish Tory leader is regarded fairly or very negatively by 34 percent of swing voters. The other 66 percent do not have an opinion at all on the man trying to convince voters he is a different kind of Conservative.