Douglas Ross’s first Holyrood election as Scottish Tory leader ended with the party losing two constituencies but its overall seat tally remaining at 31. The Moray MP was not a hit on the campaign trail. Robotic, shouty, angry — pick your well-worn adjective. He was eviscerated daily by a hostile press and any number of commentators lined up to say all manner of uncharitable things about him. I was one of them.
Yet the results are there for all to see. Ross lost the commentariat but won the voters. The electorate had better buck up its ideas sharpish.
So confident was I that Ross was going to fall flat on his coupon, I spoke to a number of his colleagues on Saturday afternoon to gauge whether they thought he should stay on (which, in fairness, is what I was going to argue). None pushed back against the premise that the party would lose seats, but all agreed that Ross shouldn’t go anywhere. The enthusiasm seen for him in the past 24 hours pre-dates the results.
What happened? That relentlessly negative messaging that we pundits all cringed at? The voters were all for it, or at least enough to win the party almost 600,000 constituency votes and more than 600,000 list votes. There is an anti-Sturgeon, anti-SNP, anti-independence vote out there and Ross spoke to it better than anyone else. I suggested the other week that Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar might have miscalculated in running an ‘Uptown Funk’ rather than a ‘Rule Britannia’ campaign this time. The results Ross produced would appear to lend credence to that.
Here, though, is my problem with Douglas Ross: I know what he's against but I'm not sure what he's for. What does he believe? What Scotland would look like after five years of him as First Minister? He tells the Telegraph: ‘We must be more than the party of “no to indyref2”. I recognise that, and I am determined that we will become an even broader movement.’ That is encouraging but it will require him to ask some fundamental questions of his party: where it stands, where it wants to take Scotland, and what exactly is the point of it?
For one thing, the party’s image needs to be revamped to shift it past the referendum wars. Ross seems to understand this. Next, the voter base has to be expanded, including to SNP voters. This is a task of a much larger order but the Tories will never get into government unless they win over people who voted Nationalist on Thursday. This is especially true in seats like Perthshire South and Kinross-shire and Edinburgh Pentlands, which should not still be beyond the Tories’ reach.
Ross has a new parliamentary party, some of whom will give Tories grounds for optimism and non-Tories grounds to give them a second look. It will be their challenge to help put the SNP’s record in play. After 14 years in power and with risible outcomes in health and education, the Nationalists appeared not to pay any price whatsoever on polling day. That can’t be allowed to happen again.
The Conservatives have to frame themselves not just as the strongest opposition but as a government-in-waiting. Again, Ross appears to understand this but it will involve a monumental job of work making the aspiration a reality. Then there is the leader himself. Polling during the campaign consistently showed him as sharply unpopular with the voters. Some might have been happy to overlook the man this time to register a protest vote against Sturgeon, but that is no basis for crafting the image of an alternative first minister. For one thing, we can’t even be certain that it will be Sturgeon he faces in 2026.
Ross shouldn’t shed who he is for some hollow makeover. For the most part, he should be himself: nice bloke, rural lad, family man, footie-daft, farm nerd. The only thing he urgently needs to change is his taste in music. (That Atomic Kitten clip wasn’t his press officer’s doing. He’s genuinely a fan. You see now why I thought he was going to be a disaster?)
Douglas Ross wasn’t just underestimated by the pundits. He was barely estimated. He showed us. Let's see what he shows us next.