'Boris Johnson Is An Absolute Shower': How Scotland Is Viewing The Tory Leadership Race

The Tory frontrunner could also spell trouble for Ruth Davidson if he becomes PM.

“Boris Johnson is a dangerous man just like Donald Trump is a dangerous man,” says Carol Mair, a Scottish independence supporter demonstrating against ‘London rule’ outside Perth Concert Hall.

Inside the building, guarded by police for fear of milkshake-brandishing protestors, the Tory leadership frontrunner is trying to convince party members he is the sure-fire vote-winner they should back as the UK’s next prime minister.

Unlike the rapturous response Johnson has enjoyed in Brexit-voting parts of England during the leadership contest - the one-time mayor of London is regarded with suspicion north of the border, even among the Tory faithful.

The much-admired Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has refused to give Johnson her backing, instead supporting a different candidate at every stage of the race - from Sajid Javid and Michael Gove to Jeremy Hunt.

“Ruth has no chance of becoming the first minister of Scotland if she is going to hitch her star to this narcissist,” Mair adds.

But the 62-year-old healthcare worker’s vote is not one Davidson will be chasing when she launches her bid to oust SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon from Bute House in 2021.

In Scotland, the big divide is not between Leave or Remain - the nation voted by 62% to stay in the EU - but Yes or No to independence.

Scottish independence supporter Carol Mair
Scottish independence supporter Carol Mair

The SNP continues to dominate, both in the Scottish Parliament and at a local authority level, and Unionists feel that, although they won the battle in 2014, the war still rages on.

Davidson is aiming for her party to become the biggest pro-Union force. Her 2017 general election campaign, which delivered an additional 13 MPs, was lauded by her colleagues for having kept Theresa May in power.

But her victories so far have been largely confined to the more affluent north and Scottish borders. Further progress, and winning power in the Scottish elections, can only come at the expense of the pro-Union Scottish Labour.

This means trust is a highly-valued commodity for Davidson - something which Johnson, the talisman of the Brexit campaign who has already backed tax cuts for the rich, is struggling to inspire in Scots.

Miles Briggs, Tory MSP, shadow health minister and one of Davidson’s closest allies, said: “Jeremy Hunt has more appeal beyond the Conservatives’ traditional base.

“If it is him against Corbyn in 2022, we have a good chance of winning a general election in a 2022 post-Brexit environment.”

A majority of MPs and MSPs are joining Davidson backing the foreign secretary.

Davidson, a gay mother-of-one, former journalist and a one-time TA signaller, took the reins at a historic low for the party in Scotland.

She wrested control of the party, separating it from the UK party.

Davidson, not May, is the Scottish MPs’ leader and she also can set the party’s policy.

Alongside Briggs, she has diverged on health policy, backing free personal care for the under 65s with life-limiting conditions such as dementia, and supporting free NHS prescriptions for Scottish people, albeit with caveats.

In a nation which for generations has backed Labour or the SNP, the freedom Davidson has from the UK party is valuable.

“In Scotland, we have picked up a lot of support from Labour voters who are unionists in their heart,” says Briggs. “To this same group, Boris is the Conservative that they don’t like.”

Ruth Davidson and the 13 Scottish Tory MPs who won their seats in 2017
Ruth Davidson and the 13 Scottish Tory MPs who won their seats in 2017
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Johnson, who regardless of how Scottish Tory members vote, looks set to be thrust on Davidson, with numerous polls putting him comfortably ahead of Hunt.

The Brexiteer’s rise has left many Scottish Tories dismayed, however, not least because of his past criticism of the Barnett Formula - the long-established calculation which guarantees UK public spending accounts for deprivation and remoteness in parts of Scotland.

At one point, Johnson claimed it amounted to a multi-billion pound “present” from English taxpayers to Scotland.

He has since performed a U-turn and given it his full-throated backing. He has also pledged to install a minister for the Union and to use some of the Department for Trade’s ‘Exporting Is Great’ funding to celebrate the Union.

Much more is needed, Briggs has suggested.

“The next PM’s support for the union cannot just be tokenistic, like running round waving the Union Jack,” he told HuffPost UK.

“Our nations have 300-year-old economic and political ties which are completely organic and building on these is far more important than whether or not people start seeing Union Jacks on their sausages.

“The SNP spend every day of their political lives looking for ways to trigger another independence referendum. People in our party need to be realistic.

“We want people to back the union in their hearts and we can really undermine the case by being tokenistic.”

Miles Briggs, Ruth Davidson and (right) Amanda Kopel, whose campaign for free personal care for the under-65s Davidson backed.
Miles Briggs, Ruth Davidson and (right) Amanda Kopel, whose campaign for free personal care for the under-65s Davidson backed.
PA Archive/PA Images

Hunt told the Perth hustings he would “never” consent to a re-run of independence referendum - a move which Sturgeon’s independence-backing Scottish Parliament has already begun to legislate for - while this was a pledge which Johnson refused to match.

Johnson’s supporters say he remains the “Heineken politician” that won Labour-voting London.

“Ruth has upset a lot of members by coming out so strongly against Boris,” said one Tory source.

In Davidson’s Edinburgh Central constituency, Johnson did indeed have name recognition, but not always for the reasons ‘Back Boris’ fans would hope.

Alasdair MacQuarrie, a 37-year-old support worker drinking at the Roseburn bar almost next door to Davidson’s office, said: “Ruth is popular in Scotland, even with those who don’t necessarily like or agree with her politics.

“If she manages to somehow hold her own against Boris when he comes into power and she isn’t seen as weak or complicit in his more reckless moves then she I don’t think it would damager her. Backing him without question could be very damaging indeed.”

Asked if Scottish voters were relaxed about Johnson as PM, he said: “I think a majority, whether they were Tory or not would not be pleased with having Boris as a leader, he’s incredibly divisive and has said derogatory things about Scotland as well as almost any other nation you care to think of.

“I don’t think people take him seriously both at home or abroad and, Brexit or not, he will damage our standing in the world.

“I don’t know anyone who has a positive opinion of Boris from my generation. Boris being PM will not reflect well on Ruth”

- Katie Clitherow, a 23-year-old from Ruth Davidson's Edinburgh constituency

Katie Clitherow, a 23-year-old junior manager at a toy shop in nearby leafy Stockbridge, said Johnson would fail to reach out to younger voters or remainers.

“Boris isn’t very relatable,” she said. “He is almost like a caricature. I don’t know anyone who has a positive opinion of Boris from my generation.

“Boris being PM will not reflect well on Ruth either.”

Oliver Brown, a shop worker in Stockbridge whose position on the Union has switched, took a dimmer view.

“I think Boris is an absolute shower,” he said. “He is one of two things: as stupid as he makes out or a liar. I just think he goes wherever the money is.

“I just feel he is a horrible human being. I voted No to independence in 2014 but since Brexit I have completely changed my mind and I’m very, very for independence now.

“I feel like Scotland is being stitched up.”

In the Scottish borders, a border town where trade with English border firms is high and support for the Union is strong, there was more warmth for Johnson even if some felt he exemplified the “typical posh English Tory” that so riles some Scots.

Jane Davis is a 47-year-old business owner in Melrose, which in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, forms part of the safest seat in Scotland for the Tories. John Lamont won the seat from the SNP’s Calum Kerr in 2017.

Davis would back Hunt over “bumbling” Johnson. “I think Boris Johnson is very charismatic, but I’m not convinced he is rational or like he is one of the people,” she said.

“He is from a very privileged background and therefore doesn’t understand the stresses that everyone else has.

“I would vote for Ruth over any of them but sadly she has made her feelings about not wanting to be PM clear.

“I feel strongly that we should be part of the UK and in the European Union. I feel like Jeremy Hunt will be able to make a better compromise and not to be dogmatic about it.”

Laura Renton, 18, a cafe worker on her way to work in Melrose town centre, said she had never heard of Hunt.

“I think Boris is a bit of a loose cannon and personally I wouldn’t vote for him,” she said. “He’s unorganised and all over the place.

“I’ve actually met Ruth Davidson and I would probably vote for her. I think Boris will be a real problem for her though.

“In terms of independence, I’m not sure how I would vote but I think both of my parents would vote Yes now because a lot of the promises that were made haven’t been kept. They voted No in 2014.

“I don’t know if Ruth could keep us in the Union, but I know she would have a good go.”

Gabriella Captain says people come into her florist in the Scottish borders town of Melrose and say "bloody Boris Johnson"
Gabriella Captain says people come into her florist in the Scottish borders town of Melrose and say "bloody Boris Johnson"

One retired ex-rugby player from Melrose, who didn’t want to be named, was deeply unhappy with how the contest for PM was unfolding.

“We have a clown in America in Donald Trump and in Boris Johnson we will have another clown here,” he said.

“I’ve never voted Tory but I admired Theresa May for trying. I despair with who will replace her.”

Gabriella Captain, a 42-year-old florist based in Melrose, said Brexit was toxic in Scotland and was now inextricably linked with the independence debate.

She said: “A lot of people who come into the shop say ‘bloody Boris Johnson’. People here do not want Brexit and he has been misleading people on Brexit.

“If they push through Brexit, we want another vote on independence because we will want to get out of the UK.”

Others already backing independence feel a Johnson premiership would be so divisive that the path to a second referendum would be clearer.

“I think everybody in this area who has been a lifetime Tory is questioning their vote,” said Paul Robertson, 47, who is originally from Yes-voting Glasgow but runs an independent jewellers called Artizan in Melrose high street.

“If we get taken out of Europe against our will, that will only create more votes for the SNP and more votes for independence.

“I think a lot of folk just think Boris is a buffoon. People come into my shop and say he is not really on the ball for someone who wants to be in the position of PM.”

Paul Robertson thinks Boris Johnson being picked as PM paves the way for a second independence referendum
Paul Robertson thinks Boris Johnson being picked as PM paves the way for a second independence referendum

Johnson does have allies in Scotland, including Colin Clark - the MP for Gordon ousted Alex Salmond and is hotly tipped to replace David Mundell as Scottish secretary - Aberdeen South MP and fellow Vote Leave campaigner Ross Thomson and former Johnson-sceptic South Scotland MSP Michelle Ballantyne who broke ranks from Davidson last month, among others.

Scottish Tory Hunt-backers seem resigned to Johnson.

One MSP, who asked not to be named, said: “We hope Boris can surround himself with a good team.

“Whoever is PM they need to understand and realise the battle for the Union did not stop in 2014.

“The SNP is looking for grievance every day, even in good news. Boris needs to be aware of that and he needs to be ready, because he will soon find out.”

Another senior Scottish Tory source simply said: “Prime minister Boris is happening. We just have to manage it.”


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