Douglas Ross’ decision to withdraw his letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson shows once again why politicians are so often reluctant to be amongst the first to go over the top: you never know when events might intervene and leave you stranded in no-man’s land.
Sir Keir Starmer found himself in the same boat, and like Ross has taken the view that it would be inappropriate to oust the Prime Minister in the midst of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The days when ‘partygate’ was the dominant news story already feel like a lifetime ago.
Notably, in his statement he Scottish Conservative leader doesn’t rule out returning to the issue:
“There will be a time and place to debate Partygate, but, as even Keir Starmer said at the weekend, we should put that on pause while there is war in Europe. It’s essential that we all fully support what the UK government is doing. In light of Russia’s appalling actions, the government and prime minister need our backing, and they have mine and the whole Scottish Conservative party.”
That last sentence suggests that he is climbing down on behalf of a lot of his colleagues, too – the overwhelming majority of the MSP group backed calls for the Prime Minister to resign.
Given the delicate situation Ross finds himself in – caught between the sometimes-competing imperatives of being part of a national party and calibrating his message to local conditions in Scotland – it makes sense to keep his options open. But it does risk storing up future trouble.
Much of the momentum behind the move to oust Johnson has gone. It is far from certain that even a fine would revive it; this generation of Conservative MPs seem unwilling to live up to their party’s historic reputation for ruthless pragmatism. Re-opening the issue later may only serve to visibly isolate Ross in the run-up to May’s local elections.
Nonetheless, it may well be evidence of a wider rapprochement. It has just been announced that the Prime Minister will attend the upcoming Scottish conference, and the invitation seems a gesture of goodwill considerably more substantial than merely suspending, temporarily, calls for his resignation. That offers another potential explanation for Ross’s warning about revisiting ‘partygate’: when stuck in no-man’s land, it makes sense to lay down a little covering fire as you get back to your foxhole.
However, the real test will come in a couple of months, as the Scottish local elections loom. Tory MPs should not confuse a scandal being off the front pages with it having been survived unscathed – the damage to Johnson’s standing with the public was very real. Those numbers may recover, but if they don’t, and he is still a drag on the Tory vote, this newfound amity will come under renewed strain.