A quick scan of Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw’s Holyrood office could lead to visitors wondering whether they had entered the wrong room.

Nestled on his desk is a distinctive black bust of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin, one of the dominant Communist figures in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Mr Carlaw picked it up on a trip to East Germany in the early 1980s and is amused by its novelty value. A portrait of Mrs Thatcher, which features prominently on his wall, dispels any notion of left-wing sympathies.

The Eastwood MSP, 59, is not widely known outside his constituency but his political profile is about to soar. With his boss Ruth Davidson set for maternity leave, he will step up as interim leader for six months.

Mr Carlaw will joust with Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions and become his party’s public face until spring next year. He will also be asked to account for the UK Government’s Brexit strategy.

He says one of his objectives as acting leader will be to give a voice to MSP colleagues who, in the wake of the Davidson tornado, receive little air time:

“It gives us an opportunity to really demonstrate that Ruth is not a one-man band, that there is a group of politicians emerging here, and at Westminster….who have that blue-collar Conservative stamp that I think Ruth decisively reintroduced.”

The interview is marked by Mr Carlaw praising his leader in such a sustained and prolonged way that it can appear a little over the top.

“I am the temporary relief for someone I have to come to regard as one of the decisive political leaders that I have seen in the 40 years I have been involved in politics,” he says.

However, Mr Carlaw was not always a Davidson fan. In the 2011 Scottish Tory leadership contest, he and Davidson were rival candidates in one of the most bitter internal elections since the advent of devolution.

The race, which Mr Carlaw ended with a perforated colon, was driven by fellow candidate Murdo Fraser’s proposal to abolish the party and start afresh. In a press release towards the end of the campaign, Mr Carlaw criticised Mr Fraser but also took aim at Ms Davidson, a political novice who had only been an MSP for five months.

“Nor is the answer to opt for someone who is completely untested, has no experience and, it would appear, no real message other than one of being the 'new kid on the block',” he thundered.

I read Mr Carlaw’s snarky statement back to him seven years later. He says he got it wrong.

“Partly I was conditioned then by the fact that the party had promoted William Hague far too soon in his political career. We spoiled William Hague’s potential and chances by making him leader of the party when he was still relatively young and inexperienced.”

“I felt that, at that point, there was a danger Ruth might fail in the same way. She proved me spectacularly wrong. By her own admission she had quite a difficult first year... but very quickly I think she started to demonstrate her resilience.”


Mr Carlaw, who is a pragmatic rather than an ideological Conservative, says his goal in politics is to help Ms Davidson become the next First Minister and install the Scottish Tories in Government.

By 2021, the year of the next Holyrood election, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years and he says voters will be hungry for an alternative. He believes the Tories need to become the largest party - overtaking the SNP in seats - for Ms Davidson to enter Bute House:

“I believe that we can be, and will be, in that position in 2021.”

The “convention” he cites is the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, when the SNP beat Labour by a single seat and Alex Salmond replaced Jack McConnell as First Minister. He says increasing the party’s seat tally from 31 to the late forties - “no less than that” - would be needed for power.

His reasoning may be flawed. If, and it is a very big if, the Tories narrowly become the largest party in 2021, the Greens would likely vote for Sturgeon as First Minister. It is also hard to imagine left-wing Labour leader Richard Leonard standing back and allowing Ms Davidson to become the country’s leader.

Mr Carlaw dodges the question on which party, if any, could help the Tories by voting for Ms Davidson as First Minister in the event of a tight election. He repeats the line that the Tories can overtake the SNP, but even his own colleagues concede privately that they would get outmaneuvered by the centre-left parties.

Another problem may be the flak the Scottish Tories take from policies emanating from Westminster. Ms Davidson tends to feel the heat for the actions and utterances of colleagues south of the border. Are statements from Westminster figures not a hindrance?

“It might have been historically. And it’s not helpful,” he says, before insisting that voters “differentiate” between Davidson and the UK party.

He is no Boris Johnson fan. On the former Foreign Secretary’s “suicide vest” comment, which he made in relation to the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy, he says:

“Would Mrs Thatcher have used language like that? I don’t think so. I think you can address a serious point on a serious issue in a serious way. And that’s not for me always how Boris Johnson chooses to play it.”

He also appears to be lukewarm on leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. Mr Carlaw was a Scottish Tory official when Mr Rees-Mogg famously stood in Glenrothes in the 1997 general election.

“We offered Scotland a very wide choice of candidates,” he says, grinning.

He is also dismissive of speculation that Davidson is planning to desert Holyrood for Westminster.

“Is her head turned? Well, whose wouldn’t be, when you get flattered by all and sundry,” he says. “She wants to be Scotland’s First Minister and I’ve never heard her express any contrary view.”


Picture: Carlaw falling short in Eastwood in 2011. He would win in 2016.

Born in 1959 and educated at Glasgow Academy, Mr Carlaw has been active in Scottish Tory politics since the late 1970s. He stood in the 1983 general election in Pollok and mounted three unsuccessful attempts at winning Eastwood for the Conservatives at Holyrood.

However, he was elected twice on the West of Scotland List from 2007 onwards and became the MSP for Eastwood nine years later. His defeat of Labour’s Ken Macintosh has been the high-point of his political career.

He has also had a few lows. In 1996, former Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth announced that Mr Carlaw was part of an “elite” campaign team to take the fight to Labour. In the ensuing general election, the Tories were wiped out in Scotland.

In 2005, Mr Carlaw apologised after cracking jokes about foreigners at a party manifesto launch. “I would like to think I am not an identikit politician,” he says. “I’ve got a bit of a personality. I’ve been around for 40 years. It sometimes leads you into trouble.”

He also had an eventful career outside politics. As the joint head of First Motor Company Ltd, Mr Carlaw presided over a well-known family car business. Despite having a turnover of over £98m in 2000, the company went into receivership three years later.

“I’ve tasted success. I’ve tasted failure. I’ve employed people, run things, hired people, sacked people, made a profit, made a loss. I’ve done all of those things,” he said.

Mr Carlaw’s new role will ensure he is a regular fixture on television and the standard-bearer for his party for the next six months. If Davidson did opt for Westminster, would he stand again?

“No,” he says, before preparing his sharpest insult of the day. “I’m at the beginning of the dinosaur end of political life. I share that with the First Minister.”