Jackson Carlaw is struggling to regain his composure. I’ve had politicians break down in front of me before but none have wept so openly or so helplessly for their constituents.
Last week the Tory rebuked Nicola Sturgeon for declaring herself ‘open-minded’ about an emergency government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Carlaw, whose Eastwood constituency is home to Scotland’s largest Jewish population, called her remarks ‘a grave error of judgement’ and said the prospect of the Labour leader in Number 10 ‘strikes genuine fear not just with Scotland’s Jewish community but with Jewish friends all across the UK’.
I raise the First Minister’s comments during a conversation in Carlaw’s boxy office at Holyrood, and ask whether she has undermined her credibility when talking about racism. He reiterates his criticism, though is at pains to note that Sturgeon has been ‘hugely supportive’ of Eastwood’s Jews. The awkward wording of her comments tells him she was ‘uncomfortable with some of the consequences’ of what she was saying.
Carlaw is a long-time friend of the Jewish community and an instinctive Zionist. There is, he says, ‘a genuine fear of Jeremy Corbyn’, and begins to tell me about spending Rosh Hashanah, which was marked at the start of this week, with a 97-year-old Auschwitz survivor. ‘I try to reassure people,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to believe this. I can’t… having lived and grown up…’
His voice spasms and his lips tremble. ‘I can get quite emotional.’ There is a long pause. He is crying now, and doing so with that ingrained shame that wells up in all west coast men when they let their emotions slip.
The next few sentences are choked out fitfully. ‘Excuse me… Having grown up with that community… with friends and neighbours… childhood friends… The fear is real… I can’t believe… that in my adult lifetime… we are debating this again. So, when the First Minister lightly talks about being open… I feel it very personally on behalf of those people.’
As Carlaw swallows tears and steadies his hand on his knee, it occurs to me how harrowing it must be to represent a constituency with a significant Jewish population these days.
The anxious phone calls, the angst-ridden surgery meetings, the furtive asides at civic functions as sober, equable men and women confess their fears for their family’s future. It would exact a toll on the most seasoned of politicians.
Carlaw takes out a handkerchief and buries his eyes in it. His despair is raw like grief; he appears haunted by it.
This is not the face of Jackson Carlaw the public is used to seeing. The interim Scottish Tory leader is a raconteur, more at home wielding a G&T down Whitecraigs Tennis Club than a motion in the debating chamber. Of course, he’s a fierce political animal — a purring panther whose bonhomie hides a ruthless streak — but he is not one of those MSPs who has no life outside politics. He boasts a wit and manner that has built friendships across partisan divides.
Carlaw’s star may not have risen at a time of his choosing but he perhaps chimes with voters’ demands for more authenticity and fewer poll-driven soundbites. I sat down with him earlier this week to discuss his Tory conference pivot to no-deal Brexit and where his party goes now in the wake of Ruth Davidson’s exit.
He is betting the house on Boris Johnson to deliver Brexit without dooming the Scottish Tories to another wipeout. Does he trust his Prime Minister?
‘I said I would judge Boris Johnson by what he does as Prime Minister, not what he said before he became Prime Minister.’ Pausing, with a wicked gleam in his eye, he jabs: ‘I mean, he was part of that murky reputation of journalism back then, so… ’
Touché. ‘Do I trust him with the Union?’ he continues. ‘Yes I do.’
There has not, however, been much contact between the two. ‘I’ve only had a couple of conversations with him,’ Carlaw admits. ‘We have been trying to fix up a date where I go down to see him; obviously it has to tie in with my parliamentary commitments here.’ The last time Johnson personally got in touch was three weeks ago but Carlaw confirms he has the PM’s personal mobile number and could access him and his key aides ‘as and when required’.
The scale of Carlaw’s Boris gamble is such that he has reversed Ruth Davidson’s opposition to no-deal Brexit. We spoke before the UK Government unveiled its new proposals on the Irish border and Carlaw pushed back on the idea he had broken with the Davidson line, arguing: ‘I don’t think that, in the way it has been reported or even that some of my colleagues have interpreted it, it is as huge a move as some have suggested.
‘We have argued all the way through that we believe a deal is the best possible outcome and that we leave the European Union in an orderly fashion with a deal… Against that background, those who say they will do anything to stop no deal have deliberately not supported a deal, which would have allowed that to happen.’
He continues: ‘I’ve said we still want a deal but that, in the event the Prime Minister secures a deal and the House of Commons won’t back it, or in the event that the discussions to arrive at a fresh arrangement don’t succeed, then we are at a point where, by virtue of the outcome of all of that, we are in a position where the only thing we can do is leave without a deal.
‘It’s not a case of supporting it; it’s a recognition that that could be the scenario in which we find ourselves… So we are not flag-wavers for no deal.’
His MSPs were reportedly furious about the volte-face, announced at Tory conference in Manchester, but Carlaw claims they were aware of the trajectory in advance, saying that at ‘the first group meeting we mapped out that this would be the policy’. No one in London pressured him, he maintains. Rather, he reasoned that ‘the public are fed up, they want to move on, and an extension on its own doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be any further forward at the end of it’.
Even so, it does feel like the dial has shifted from the Davidson era. Her former deputy doesn’t see it that way. ‘I’m an absolute supporter of Project Ruth. Ruth is the epitome of the Conservative politics I have always believed in,’ he asserts, comparing it to Teddy Taylor’s blue-collar conservatism, or ‘the representation of the people who don’t live in big hooses’. He is ‘absolutely committed to maintaining the agenda that Ruth pursued’ and wants to advance the ‘Generation Ruth’ Tories who joined the party because of the Edinburgh Central MSP.
This is all well and good but the 60-year-old must know he can’t match Davidson in electoral potency. He concedes she was ‘a pretty unique commodity’ and the best Tory to come out of Scotland in his 45 blue-rosetted years, adding: ‘If you’re asking me if I see myself as Ruth in a suit, no, I don’t think I do. I think I see a whole collection of Conservatives now who are capable collectively of representing Generation Ruth. But I think I am capable of articulating and fighting for that message going forward from here.’
Before he can do that, he will have to fend off the threat of another nationalist referendum. He goes to excruciating lengths to avoid being drawn into a debate on the details of any such plebiscite, arguing that it concedes the idea of holding one at all. He won’t even declare a preference for a Yes/No or Remain/Leave question, and even suggests a statement-based question of his own.
I tried charm, I tried trickery, I tried asking the same question in half a dozen different ways but, for all my efforts, he would not be pinned down on what would constitute a mandate for a Scexit referendum. The line, which he repeated with an ideological discipline of which the incongruous Lenin bust on his desk would be proud, was: ‘Vote Scottish Conservative and we will be opposing the holding of a second referendum.’
Yes, I say, but what if the SNP and the Greens win a majority of seats in 2021? Would Carlaw the democrat feel bound to concede a fresh ballot?
‘You will not have Scottish Conservatives voting for a referendum in the next parliament,’ he reiterates.
What about the UK Tories, I query. What was their stance?
‘The position of the UK Government is pretty clear—‘
‘I don’t think it is, actually,’ I dissent.
‘—now is not the time to be considering having a second independence referendum.’
Fair enough if he doesn’t want to dance to a Nationalist jig but didn’t Unionist voters have a right to know where they stood with the Tories?
‘If you vote for Scottish Conservatives, it will be a referendum-free parliament.’
Of course, they can’t guarantee that and by not setting out their terms for a referendum mandate they risk allowing their opponents to set them unilaterally. On the possibility of further devolution, he is more forthcoming: ‘We will not be going into 2021 seeking further powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.’
Getting away from the constitution — if such an escape is possible — he wants to see Scotland become ‘an entrepreneurial, dynamic economy’ that seizes the opportunities of Brexit, such as they are. How well the Scottish Tories communicate this message to the voters is another matter. The party is adept at reacting to SNP failures but lacks a clear policy programme beyond opposition to another referendum on leaving the UK. I put it to him that, once you strip out the constitutional question, it’s not altogether obvious what the Scottish Conservatives stand for.
‘You know, I don’t think that’s unfair,’ he grants. ‘I think what we have to do now is produce, which we are working on, a policy prospectus which attracts people and fleshes out our claim to represent a blue-collar policy for Scotland.’
The Tories’ Growth Council, not to be confused with Nicola Sturgeon’s Growth Commission, will report soon with ‘key economic proposals’, and the party is also looking at health and education policy. Carlaw adds: ‘I think you’re right: I don’t think you can simply react; you also have to be proactive in terms of the development of policy… We cannot simply go into a Scottish election as a one-trick pony, which is: “Vote for us and we won’t have an indyref for five years”. We have to be able to say: “This is what we’re going to do and this is why we think we can represent modern Scotland”.’
There are Tories who challenge that last point and think the Scottish party should break away from its UK parent. Carlaw is agin it but I point out that several of his MSPs are for it.
‘Hang on,’ he shoots back. ‘The MSP group is not the party. There are 31 MSPs, there are 13 MPs, there are 250 councillors, there are now several thousand more members than there were when we had that discussion in 2011.’
Although he regards it as not ‘the way forward’, he vowed not to block the discussion and knows how eager some of his colleagues are.
‘There was one parliamentarian,’ he recalls, ‘who did say to me he thought this was something I could just announce. I had to explain that it was a constitutional process and it would actually require the membership to vote for it. I don’t think that’s where the membership are.’
Polls point to the Scottish Tories losing almost all their 2017 gains in a snap election. Carlaw is not so sure. Voters in Eastwood, which recorded the largest Remain vote (74 per cent) of any Tory-held seat in the UK, tell him they want to move on from Brexit — albeit very much preferring a deal — while rejecting another referendum on Scotland leaving the Union. He believes both Brexit and Scexit will be on the agenda in the campaign and suggests ‘bubble’ thinking might be surprised by the outcome.
‘I don’t diminish the challenge that an immediate election is going to present,’ he adds, ‘but this feels more like 1992 than it does 1997.’
Timing is thought to be key. Tory insiders have briefed the Press that the party would rather a General Election in the New Year to coincide with the trial of Alex Salmond. Isn’t that a bit grubby?
A look of distaste stiffens the corners of his mouth. ‘I read that, Stephen, and I was very annoyed,’ he discloses. ‘Whoever was saying that, that’s completely the wrong approach to be taking. I think it’s dangerous. I think it’s cynical. I’ve already said to colleagues and I’m meeting the entire parliamentary group here and the MPs at the beginning of next week… I’ll be saying to all colleagues: I don’t think that’s the right kind of language for us to be using publicly.
‘We are ready to fight a General Election whenever that should happen and we should anticipate the political weather changing at all times. But I don’t think that we should be identifying that in any way as some sort of catalyst around which we should be trying to build any level of support’.
Alex Salmond denies all charges against him.
The timing of any General Election might not be Carlaw’s concern soon enough. Hours after we spoke, reports emerged of a plot to oust him and hold a snap leadership poll. He had told me he would like to see a leadership election ‘sooner rather than later’. He declined to confirm if he would be a candidate, though he did say: ‘I am very keen to ensure that the project that Ruth began, the whole campaign for that blue-collar agenda which she has been fighting on, has its opportunity to be represented all the way through to the Scottish election in 2021.’
It doesn’t take a degree in semantics to read between those lines. What he did confirm, though, is that there would be no coronation.
If reports of a plot are correct, his colleagues seem determined on that point. Some would question the wisdom of choosing this moment of national uncertainty to oust a veteran general in favour of a shiny-faced recruit. That is, however, a terribly stuffy and, well, conservative way of thinking, and if there’s one thing the Conservative Party has no time for anymore it’s conserving things.
That could end up being what does for Jackson Carlaw. He can’t feign a yearning to tear up institutions; stick it to vague, nefarious elites; or wage battle from the trenches of the culture war. He’s not a radical, or a populist, or a nationalist. He’s a Tory, and the Tory Party may have had its fill of those.