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Inside Scottish Tory conference as Conservatives bid to capitalise on SNP chaos

© PADouglas Ross and Rishi Sunak at the Scottish Tory conference. Image: PA.
Douglas Ross and Rishi Sunak at the Scottish Tory conference. Image: PA.

When the Scottish Tories met for their 2022 conference the party was mired in crisis as Boris Johnson fought to survive the partygate scandal.

Holyrood leader Douglas Ross had demanded his Westminster boss quit and there were doubts over whether the two could even appear onstage together.

A year later a more positive mood surrounds the party now Rishi Sunak is in charge as they seek to capitalise on the SNP’s crisis.

Yet the opening day of their Glasgow conference was dominated by a row over media access to the prime minister and the looming prospect of defeat at the next election still lingers.

So have the Conservatives bounced back, or are they still in huge trouble?

Will the Tories benefit from SNP struggles?

Partygate and the disastrous tenure of Liz Truss left the Tories in a dire position, and at risk of losing every single seat north of the border.

But senior party insiders reckon the SNP’s polling slump gives the Conservatives a strong chance of upping their seat count at the next Westminster vote.

Liam Kerr reckons his party is in a good place. Image: Scottish Parliament.

“There’s a hugely optimistic feel to the party”, said north-east MSP Liam Kerr.

“We are bringing forward positive policies.”

“I could never have imagined the scale of the SNP implosion that occurred over the past few months”, said Dundee-based MSP Maurice Golden.

“Classically they’ve been disciplined.”

“There’s a massive opportunity to make gains”,  he added.

“I’m absolutely delighted that when we are campaigning we won’t have Boris Johnson to face on the doorsteps.”

Mr Golden has one particular ambition for his party in Perthshire.

He said: “I hope we can stop Pete Wishart being the longest-serving Scottish MP. That would be a dream.”

Scottish Tory MSP Donald Cameron. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

Highland MSP Donald Cameron reckons the ferry scandal which has bogged down the SNP and delays to road dualling projects will help his party in rural Scotland.

He said: “We have a very good chance of making progress in rural Scotland where people see the SNP are letting them down.”

Mr Cameron added: “We’re on the right course. We’re in a much more positive place.”

But senior UK Tory Michael Gove warned the SNP may “rebrand” in an effort to recover ahead of the next Westminster vote.

He said: “They have a base which of course they need to keep riled up and believing that independence is just over the horizon.”

The SNP’s Westminster deputy Mhairi Black insisted voting for her party is “the only way to get rid of Westminster Tory governments for good with independence”.

How is Douglas Ross coping?

If 2022 was a tough year for the Conservatives as a whole, it was a nightmarish 12 months for their under-fire leader.

Mr Ross flip-flopped multiple times over whether Mr Johnson should quit and was constantly forced to confront his party’s controversies at Westminster.

But within his party there is a sense he has improved in the role and can rest easy about any possible threats to his leadership.

“Douglas is really growing into the role”, Mr Kerr said.

“I think his performances at First Minister’s Questions in particular have got better and better.”

A spectre constantly looming over Mr Ross is that of ex-leader Ruth Davidson, who improved the party’s performance at Holyrood and Westminster while in charge.

Mr Golden told us: “Anyone, including me, isn’t going to be able to replace Ruth Davidson. She was perhaps a once-in-a-generation leader.

Tory MSP Maurice Golden. Image: Richard Gardner.

“But you can strongly argue that two years into the job, people were questioning her. The 2014 referendum campaign made her.”

North East MSP Mr Golden reckons his party needs to develop more policies beyond merely opposing independence to capitalise on the SNP’s struggles.

He said: “There’s a lot of work to be done to get us in shape. That requires more policies, and it requires more communications relevant to people.”

Did the Tory media row overshadow their conference?

Prime Minister Mr Sunak attempted to set out a positive pitch on improving the economy to his party’s members when he took to the stage on Friday.

However, his whole speech was quickly overshadowed by No 10’s attempts to bar journalists from various outlets access to a media briefing.

His team soon backed down, but it was a strange look from a party who have been quick to criticise the SNP for lacking transparency.

Rishi Sunak speaking at the Scottish Tory conference. Image: Duncan Bryceland/Shutterstock.

The debacle raised questions over how much power the Scottish Conservatives hold when senior Westminster figures are in town.

For ex-Tory head of communications Adam Morris, the row was a familiar story.

“It’s always the case,” he said. “I started working at these conferences in 2012. My predecessors warned me when No10 came up, it would be a nightmare. That tells you how long this has been a problem for.

“I think there’s just an attitude in No 10, because they think they work in the centre of the universe, everywhere else is lesser.

“They think that when they come up, they can rule the roost. It’s an own goal from No10.”

Behind the scenes Tory sources blamed Mr Sunak’s team for the row and insisted the prime minister himself was confident speaking to the media.

Mr Ross himself admitted the controversy was “unnecessary” and insisted he would be making the “strongest possible representations” to Downing Street.

“Clearly, all the Scottish media should have been invited,” Mr Golden said.

Party insiders say the relationship between Holyrood and No10 has vastly improved since Mr Sunak took on the top job.

Maintaining that unity will be a key goal for the Conservatives as they seek to keep Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour away from power at the next election.