Boris Johnson is not the only one catching flack from his parliamentary party over Dominic Cummings. Scottish Conservative MSPs are ‘in despair’ at Jackson Carlaw’s leadership on the row and believe he is currying favour with Downing Street in hopes of securing a peerage down the line.
On Sunday, the Scottish Tory press office released a statement from Ruth Davidson’s successor which read in part:
‘I've heard what the Prime Minister has said and it is a situation for him to judge. He has reached a conclusion and we must all now focus on continuing to beat this dreadful pandemic. I want the Prime Minister to be able to continue his excellent work leading the country out of lockdown and I am glad he set out his plans clearly today.’
Carlaw is not ordinarily one to hold his tongue. When Nicola Sturgeon was trying to cling on to Dr Catherine Calderwood, her chief medical officer who had been caught flouting lockdown to visit her second home, Carlaw told the media: ‘Dr Calderwood's position is very difficult, untenable even, given the damage this has caused public trust… There cannot be one rule for the bosses and another one for everyone else.’
His equivocation on Cummings’ actions, particularly when backbench Tory MPs in England are defying the whips to speak out, has prompted scathing assessments from his own team.
One Scottish Conservative MSP tells me: ‘It’s fair to say Tory MSPs are in despair at his stance — or lack of it — on the Cummings' affair, and wondering if they backed the wrong horse for the leadership. His major interest seems to be in not rocking the boat with London so he can collect a knighthood or peerage in a couple of years.’
Another, asked via text message to describe Carlaw’s handling of the matter, replied: ‘Disastrous. Pathetic. Embarrassing.’
There were already growing grumbles about Carlaw in the party’s grassroots. Activists say he lacks Davidson’s gumption, media savvy and stamina. That perception wasn’t helped when his predecessor popped up on Sky News and Good Morning Britain last week and laid into the Scottish Government’s management of the Covid-19 crisis with a gusto not yet displayed by Carlaw.
Davidson resigned the Scottish Tory leadership last August, citing her desire to see son Finn grow up and disagreements with Boris Johnson over Brexit. Her departure was seen as a blow to the Tories’ hopes of making further progress north of the border. Davidson doubled their seats in the Scottish Parliament in a single election and ousted Labour as the main opposition party. She also bucked the lacklustre national results for the Tories at the 2017 general election, delivering the party’s best night in Scotland since 1983 and toppling SNP titans such as Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.
Under Carlaw’s interim leadership, the party lost more than half its seats in December’s election but his first full-fledged electoral test will be the Scottish Parliament elections due next May. The most recent poll puts the Conservatives 31 points behind the SNP. Carlaw has a lot of work to do to win over the voters but his more immediate priority might be to win over his own MSPs.