The Boris warning signs were there in Scotland 3 years ago - England should have listened sooner

(Originally published in the Scotsman on July 7, 2022)

Rishi Sunak and accomplices may have finally woken up to the fact their old boss isn’t fit to hold the office of Prime Minister.

But the warning signs were there in Scotland three years ago, and senior Conservatives south of the border should have tuned in sooner.

No-one was particularly in the mood for a snap General Election as Christmas approached in 2019.

Nevertheless, Scottish Conservative candidates breezed into that campaign with a reasonable sense of optimism.

They had been received well on the doorsteps for the Holyrood campaign in 2016, and even more warmly a year later for the General Election in which the party returned a remarkable 13 seats.

But by 2019, one thing had changed.

No sooner had the door-knocking begun than candidates, especially those seeking to retain the seats they’d won in 2017, were reporting back to central office with some bleak news.

People who’d voted for them before would not do so this time, purely because of Boris Johnson.

In some seats, that response was being received at every second house they visited.

And these weren’t left-leaning or independence-supporting people.

They were targeted voters, well researched and canvased, who in most other circumstances would have voted Scottish Conservative.

Now, with alarming consistency, they were saying: “Sorry, I just can’t vote for him.”

So when the results came through and the party grimly hung onto six seats, we all knew why we had lost the other seven.

Some bogus explanations were floated.

Brexit? Not really, by 2019 most people had made their peace with it and, even if they were cheesed off at the outcome and the implications, were becoming increasingly fed up by the wrangling and wanted it resolved.

On the other side, some hard-line unionists thought Boris wasn’t being bigged up enough. Perhaps if we’d got right behind him we’d have seen a red wall-style effect in Scotland too?

That was always a weak argument, and one that ignored the fact Scotland’s “red wall” had already been broken down by Ruth Davidson during the referendum and subsequent election campaigns.

No – the sole cause of the party’s nosedive was Boris. Voters didn’t like him, and it’s been costing the party north of the border ever since.

And now it’s done the same down south.

For all the talk of partygate, deviant behaviour of MPs, and a haphazard response to Covid, there’s only one true reason these Conservative politicians have ousted their leader.

They are worried about losing.

At last, they have appreciated that going into an election with Boris as the leader would have resulted in a trouncing.

Scottish Conservatives who lost their seats, and their staff whose jobs went with them, could have told them that a long time ago.

But is it all too late?

Have the rebels, newly in possession of a backbone, factored in the immense Boris-shaped hangover this will leave and the length of time for which it will remain?

Bizarrely, some unlikely sources may also be uncomfortable with his departure.

The last thing the Labour party wanted was to go up against a different Tory – especially a reasonable and popular one - at the ballot box. It was actually firmly in their interests for him to remain in place.

It was in the SNP’s interests too.

His tenure may not have delivered the polling boost for independence that the nationalists would have hoped.

But as long as a second referendum remains a live possibility, they would have chosen to fight that against the backdrop of a Boris Johnson-run government.

So while they may have gone for the jugular in public, privately they felt something different.

The latest drama has naturally set tongues wagging within the Scottish Conservatives too, and has again raised the question of the value of separating from the UK institution.

It’s a development many leading Scottish Conservatives would be open to.

But they won’t want it to happen under bad terms – it has to be a good-times decision.

Otherwise, it merely writes the Yes campaign’s key messages for the next couple of years.

“Even the Scottish Conservatives can’t stand being in a union with Westminster – why should the rest of Scotland?”

As long as the indyref2 question remains high up the agenda, a formal split of the party cannot happen.

And what of the question of independence, and the impact the developments of the last 48 hours may have?

It’s remarkable that the Yes campaign hasn’t been able to seize on the perfect storm of a deeply unpopular Prime Minister and a shambolic Brexit process to increase support for the break-up of the UK.

But unionists should be looking at that too. Did allowing Boris to stay in place for so long mean a chance was missed to put all this to bed?

Whoever succeeds him must put this matter at the very top of his or her priority list.

The Johnson tenure may be over.

For the party’s prospects at the next General Election, it has probably gone on too long already.

The Boris premiership was built on foundations of sand, lurching from one desperate tactic to the next, always prioritising short-term gains over long-term good.

It’s a strategy that would be intolerable in almost any other walk of life.

He won’t be around to pay the price of that, but plenty of others will.

Perhaps the next time alarm bells ring north of the border when it comes to the wellbeing of the Conservative party, colleagues down south will swing into action a bit more quickly.