Douglas Ross is a ‘lightweight’. The head of the Scottish Tories is ‘not a big figure in the Conservative party’. These two assessments were issued on Wednesday evening in separate broadcast appearances by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House and the most biddable boot boy in Westminster.
That Downing Street would be displeased by Ross’s call for the Prime Minister to resign is to be expected. That it licensed Rees-Mogg to trash the Scottish Conservative Party in retaliation says a great deal about the outfit currently running the show. The assertion by a senior minister that a Scottish Tory leader is ‘not a big figure’ in the party has the potential to haunt the Scottish Conservatives the way ‘branch office’ still dogs Scottish Labour.
It is doubtful Rees-Mogg considered the soundbite gift he was handing the SNP. It is doubtful he cares. We can surmise this from his demeanour in the Newsnight studio. His ‘lightweight’ jibe prompted a sputter of disbelief from Kirsty Wark yet the Commons leader was the very picture of composed intent. Ross, the oikish son of a farmer, had gotten uppity with the sons of gentlemen and now an example was being made of him.
Rees-Mogg’s snide contempt for the most senior Tory in Scotland is an object lesson about a certain class in this country and the sort of progeny it turns out. Rees-Mogg was educated at Westminster, Eton and Oxford but no amount of expensive schooling could teach him good manners. In the past 24 hours, Douglas Ross, product of an agricultural college, has carried himself with a decorum his insulter could not hope to match. No one has been elevated by the tawdry sideshow into which Britain’s government has devolved but Ross is one of the few office-holding Tories to stand apart.
Politically, it was open to him to pivot on the contrite-sounding assurances of Boris Johnson’s Commons apology and conclude that Sue Gray’s inquiry should be allowed to run its course. However, that was never going to happen. Ross said early on that evidence of the PM personally attending lockdown-breaking parties would require his resignation. This expressed his genuine belief about the threshold of acceptability and is consistent with his own resignation from government over Dominic Cummings’s Barnard Castle adventures.
It also framed the question as one of facts, not moral culpability or political calculation. When Johnson told Parliament the May 2020 soiree ‘could be said technically to fall within the guidance’ and that he ‘believed implicitly that this was a work event’, the Opposition could only scoff. Typical Boris: sly, slippery, and self-serving. But Ross had set parameters out of which his party leader could not slide. It wasn’t about intentions or inferences, what the Prime Minister believed and whether that belief was reasonable. As Joe Friday used to say, ‘Just the facts, ma’am’.
What mattered was whether Boris Johnson was there, and if he was, he had to go. The decisive extract from Ross’s statement was this:
“‘Crucially for me he said that in hindsight if he had his time again he would have done things differently. To me that is an acceptance from the Prime Minister that he did wrong, and therefore to be consistent with what I've said before I don’t believe his position as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party is tenable and he does need to resign.’
No lofty rhetoric about moral reckonings. No grandstanding about ‘one rule for them’. No barely concealed glee at the comeuppance of a political foe. It is the worst kept secret in Tory politics that Ross had come to regard Johnson, whom he voted for in the 2019 leadership contest, as a liability for the party and the Union. But Ross is a party man, much more so than Johnson, and so he bit his tongue. Too long, as it happens, and he got his reward on Newsnight last night.
There are political advantages to Ross’s actions, not least illustrating once again that he is his own man. But the benefits shouldn't be overstated. Most Scottish Tories would be glad to see the back of Boris Johnson but a vocal minority will resent Ross turning on his own and demand he stick to the day job of holding Nicola Sturgeon to account.
His political opponents will move swiftly from acknowledging his firm stance to berating him for not taking it sooner (even if they don’t have much of a track record challenging leaders of their own parties). The commendations of the Scottish press, meanwhile, will be as fleeting as they are grudging.
Douglas Ross has taken on his own prime minister, earned the enmity of Downing Street and is braced for the political consequences to come. He is no lightweight.