‘The Progressives’: Could Boris and Brexit prompt a new Scottish party?

The flaxen-haired tornado that has stormed through the corridors of Westminster in the past 72 hours has left much political carnage in its wake.

Seventeen ministers resigned or were sacked by Boris Johnson and replaced in large part by fellow-travellers committed to the hardest of Brexits, including a no-deal variation to ensure the UK departs the European Union by October 31.

A government of, by and for the Brexiteers is a comprehensive routing of the Tory Left, which had striven to achieve a softer Brexit, but Johnson’s triumph also registers an ultimate defeat for Operation Arse, the nickname given by senior Scottish Tories to a 2018 effort to stop Johnson becoming party leader.

Ruth Davidson has discovered the limits of her influence within the UK party. Her concerns about Johnson went unheeded by MPs and members. Her endorsements of Sajid Javid, then Michael Gove, and finally Jeremy Hunt placed not so much as a speed bump in his path to power.

Her advocacy for David Mundell to be kept on as Secretary of State for Scotland appears not to have given Johnson a moment’s pause before sacking the nine-year veteran of the Scotland Office.

Davidson, we are now told, can work with Johnson, as though she has much of a choice. She may be Scottish Conservative leader but, in the end, the UK-wide head of her party is the man calling the shots in Downing Street. As revealed in Monday’s Scottish Daily Mail, there is a movement afoot to change that.

Senior Scottish Tories believe Johnson will prove so toxic to voters north of the Border — and therefore so injurious to the Union — that it would be best all-round if they broke away and formed a separate party in Scotland.

In doing so, they contend, Davidson would be well-placed to defend the Union and appeal to Tory-averse voters while swiftly shoving Johnson out of the picture. Operation Arse has been replaced by Operation Elbow.

Far from the idle brainstorming of backroom staff, founding a new Scottish centre party enjoys support among the parliamentary group at Holyrood.

A senior Scottish Conservative MSP said: ‘There’s probably two main drivers as to why this idea’s time has come. The first is that the Conservative and Unionist Party that many of us joined is no longer the same party it once was. That’s not just because Boris has become leader but because, effectively, the party has become an English nationalist party south of the Border. It’s become obsessed with Europe.

‘The recent survey saying 63 per cent of Tory members would sacrifice the Union for Brexit tells us all we need to know. That’s not us leaving the Conservative and Unionist Party, it is, to reach for the inevitable cliche these days, the Conservative and Unionist Party leaving us. For Scottish Tories who put the Union first, we simply have different priorities to colleagues south of the Border.

‘The second point is that Scottish politics does need a realignment. The country is still more or less divided 55/45 Unionist/Nationalist. If you’re in the 45 per cent you are most likely to end up voting SNP. If you’re in the 55 per cent you have a choice of three parties, so the pro-Union vote is always going to be split three ways. Dislodging the SNP from government, which must always be the primary objective of Unionists, is difficult to achieve unless you consolidate the vote.

‘None of the three Unionist parties is strong enough on their own to dislodge the SNP. What could do that is a distinctively Scottish, centre-to-centre-right party led by Ruth Davidson, who is the most popular leader in Scotland. Many people who wouldn’t vote for a Boris-led party might vote for a Ruth Davidson-led party in Scotland. Also, many people who vote SNP vote for them not because they like nationalism but because they like a party that appears to stand up for Scottish interests, and a party that did that could win their votes.’

Another MSP said a split was ‘inevitable’, either before the 2021 election or in its wake under Ruth Davidson’s successor.

There is still every chance that Johnson and Davidson will set aside their differences and work together against common enemies. Misery — and the prospect of an early election — acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. Hunger for victory over Labour and the SNP isn’t the only thing the two leaders share. Both are big personalities and, it must be said, big egos. Both espouse a blue-collar conservatism that falls somewhere between the old Thatcherite and One Nation camps.

Both joined politics from the media and are connoisseurs of the camera-friendly stunt and both are skilled, much more so than most of their peers, in using humour to cut through to punters who otherwise switch off at the first hint of political chat. (There’s a reason both were hits on Have I Got News For You.) Theirs is a clash of two personalities more similar than either would like to admit.

The rub is that their personal variance is really a side issue. The primary sources of Scottish Tory disquiet are Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland and the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the electoral fortunes of the SNP and independence.

The Johnson ministry faces three major challenges. It must: a) deliver Brexit by October 31, b) keep Jeremy Corbyn out of 10 Downing Street, and c) prevent Scottish independence. Brexit is top priority, followed by rebuilding a polling lead over Labour (and, ideally, not squandering it when the next election comes). These two matters dominated Johnson’s leadership campaign; the future of the Union was only occasionally spoken of and the candidate himself seldom ventured to the far side of the Tweed.

Even if he defies all the experts and manages to pull off a successful Brexit and bury Corbynism in the process, neither is a guarantee that his government will find favour in Scotland. When it comes to rejecting successful UK prime ministers, Scotland has form. Margaret Thatcher was responsible for the rewriting of many an economics textbook but as she was forced to concede in her memoirs, ‘there was no Tartan Thatcherite revolution’.

The difference between 1980s Scotland and Scotland today is that awkward assemblage of angles at the foot of the Royal Mile. The Scottish Parliament, far from ‘killing nationalism stone dead’, has provided the SNP a platform and resources to undermine the Union. They could only oppose Mrs Thatcher as a glorified pressure group; they will be able to confront Johnson and his no-deal Brexit as the Scottish Government.

If Johnson proves to be a Thatcher-like hate figure in Scotland, the SNP could reframe independence from a leap in the dark to an escape hatch, and finally convince a majority of Scots of the need to leave the Union. Westminster could deny another referendum but that might only harden support for separation and even lead to a Catalan-style stand-off.

To advocates of a new party (names like ‘The Progressives’ and ‘The Unionists’ come up), theirs is the best way to avoid this eventuality. How would it work, though? The two models regularly cited are Germany and Canada. In Germany, the main centre-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, operates a pact with the Christian Social Union; the CDU contests 15 of Germany’s 16 states but gives the CSU a free run in its historic stronghold Bavaria. However, the two parties function essentially as one in the Bundestag and remain in coalition whether in government or opposition.

Others prefer the approach taken by Canadian Tories to their own nationalist-bedevilled province. My senior MSP said: ‘We have 13 MPs who like being in the Conservative and Unionist Party, and why shouldn’t people in Scotland have the option of voting for Boris Johnson? So why not look to Quebec, who have had similar constitutional issues to us in recent decades. The Conservative Party of Canada don’t fight provincial elections there; historically, the Quebec Liberal Party swallowed up the Tory vote.’

The celebrated example is Jean Charest, who switched from leading the Progressive Conservatives in the House of Commons to heading up the Quebec Liberals and winning the premiership of the province in 2003. Quebecers weren’t interested in voting for a Tory but they were willing to vote for a centre-right liberal party with an obviously Quebecois identity. Quebec even offers an example in the other direction. The current governing party is a sovereignty-lite outfit that split from the main nationalist party to win over an electorate now overwhelmingly against independence.

Another potential model is Australia’s centre-right Coalition, a permanent alliance of the Liberal Party, which mostly contests urban and suburban electorates, and the National Party, which focuses on regional and rural Australia. Since World War II, the split has kept the right-wing in power almost twice as long as the Labor Party.

Although split advocates advance different models, there is broad consensus on several points. First, ‘The Progressives’ would seek a non-aggression pact with the UK Tories in which the former only contested Holyrood and council elections while the latter stood for Westminster.

Second, no one is concerned about funding, in the main because they would expect interest from the business community in a moderate, pro-Union party, but also because the Scottish Tories are already in a healthy financial position compared to the UK party. A source points out: ‘Very recently, it was the Scottish Conservative Party that was bailing out London when they weren’t able to pay staff salaries. Back around Easter time, when all Central Office money dried up, they had to ask the Scottish Tories for a loan.’

Third, the fluid nature of UK politics is thought to make a new party more viable than before. ‘The Brexit Party proved that you can win a national election from a standing start in six weeks,’ said one MSP who spoke to me.

Another senior insider, who is cautiously supportive of a breakaway, raised crucial questions for those hoping to bring this project to fruition. This key figure said it was ‘clear there is a demand out there for a party that is seen as pro-Scottish and pro-UK’ but added that ‘as we learned with Change UK, you can’t go into radical changes like this half-cocked’. The source said that a new party would have to unite rather than further split the pro-Union vote and indicated that a Holyrood-only split could be the answer.

Conversations with party figures in both parliaments throws up an obvious divide between the Holyrood group, where sympathisers are to be found, and the MP contingent at Westminster, where a frosty reception awaits the idea. Objections range from a wish to preserve long-standing party structures to the apparent hypocrisy of a party which opposes Scotland’s independence from Westminster while insisting on its own.

Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson, a vocal supporter of the new Prime Minister, said: ‘If we cannot demonstrate in practice that it is better to be part of something bigger, to pool and share our resources across the UK party and that there’s more we can achieve together, how can we seriously have any credibility going to the electorate telling them that Scotland is better off in the United Kingdom when we’ve just separated from our party?

‘In 2011 we had a long and in-depth debate on this very issue. The whole premise of the leadership campaign at that time was on separating and creating a new party. That proposal was heavily defeated and Ruth won a mandate because breaking our party apart is anathema to our grassroots members and rightly so.

‘The colour and make-up of governments and administrations are temporary but the Conservative and Unionist Party has been around for 185 years. We are the most successful political party in British history and that is something worth protecting and promoting, not throwing away because some elected members have a personal grievance with our new Prime Minister.’

Thomson added that he had accompanied Boris Johnson on a visit to Aberdeen and the ‘incredible’ welcome voters gave him showed ‘he has a stardust that simply no other politician has’.

Opposition to a split among the MP group is not seen as too much of an impediment among proponents. ‘If the blockage to this idea is the opposition of MPs, Boris calling an early election might remove that issue,’ my senior MSP says, waspishly.

A more stubborn blockage is Davidson herself. As Ross Thomson alluded to, she won the 2011 Scottish Tory leadership poll by arguing against this very idea. When the prospect was raised in a recent interview, she said a breakaway party ‘is not something I have ever supported, I don’t support and I wouldn’t support in the future’.

That’s the problem with Davidson: she’s not just a Tory, she’s a conservative. She is instinctively sceptical of radical change. But she has beaten tactical retreats from previous lines in the sand and the question is whether Boris or Brexit or both will make it necessary to do so again. The threat of Jo Swinson — whom a Tory insider describes as the Lib Dems’ ‘pretend Ruth’ — might also become a factor.

Becoming head of a broad-based pro-Union party could pave the way for Davidson to clinch the keys to Bute House in 2021. Even then, her old-fashioned Tory patriotism would probably get the better of her personal ambition. What, though, if the stakes were higher? What if Brexit and Borisism began to shift Scottish public opinion in favour of independence?

Then Davidson would have to decide whether her higher loyalty belonged to the Union or a party that was now imperilling its very existence. Whatever her choice, leading figures in her party have already made theirs, and are waiting for their leader to catch up with them.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

%d bloggers like this: