NEW Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has been hit by an embarrassing leak of internal party emails. 

Messages obtained by the Daily Record show divisions in the party over controversial hate crime legislation. 

Senior MSPs wanted to stop short of calling for the Hate Crime Bill to be scrapped, but were overruled by Mr Ross, who favoured a tougher stance.

SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf called the leak "explosive" and claimed it showed the Tories' "duplicity" on the issue. 

The Scottish Government's Hate Crime Bill creates new offences of "stirring up" hatred and updates the characteristics protected in law from hate crimes.

Critics have raised concerns over its impact on freedom of speech, and Mr Yousaf recently announced part of it will be watered down.

The Record reported that in an email sent days before a Holyrood debate, Liam Kerr, the Tories’ justice spokesman, suggested the party put forward a motion that would stop short of calling for the legislation to be scrapped.

He said: "I think there is a danger if we go any stronger on the motion, another opposition party will propose an amendment which the SNP could vote for which passes and we look isolated and unreasonable.”

But Mr Ross, who is the MP for Moray and plans to stand for Holyrood next year, said: “The First Minister has already agreed to reflect on the consultation responses, so I am concerned that with your wording we would be asking for something they have accepted, while not pushing for what many people are calling for which is a complete change to the current proposals.

"I am acutely aware of the support for parts of the proposed Bill, but there is nothing to stop those elements coming back again but with the bonus of Parliament having shown that the elements that are unacceptable have been voted down." 

Glasgow MSP Adam Tomkins, who is convener of the justice committee, said he "strongly" preferred the motion proposed by Mr Kerr. 

He said: "There is no defect in the Bill that cannot be cured by careful and robust amendment.

"To demand the Bill be withdrawn rather than scrutinised and amended risks making us look like the unreasonable ones. Let’s not do that.”

He added: “Let’s make the Nats look unreasonable and dogmatic. It’s forensic study that killed named persons, not acting like a bull in a china shop. So too here.”

He also argued the Conservatives "don't want the Bill withdrawn" because "we want it live and kicking right up to the election", adding: "So why ask for it to be killed off?"

While long-standing MSP Murdo Fraser backed Mr Tomkins, Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson agreed with Mr Ross.

He said: “I think the message needs to be clear - that the Bill is dangerous and should be scrapped. We don’t need to overthink it at this stage."

The Scottish Tory call to scrap the Hate Crime Bill and draft new legislation was later rejected by MSPs.

Mr Ross was appointed leader of the Scottish Tories in August, although Ruth Davidson leads the party in Holyrood.

SNP MSP George Adam told the Record: “This appalling exchange again demonstrates the serious lack of judgment at the head of the Tory party. 

"Its leaders would rather try to score cheap political points than engage constructively to better the lives of the people of Scotland."

A Scottish Tory spokesman said: “The Scottish Conservatives have robust debates on policy.

“Ultimately, as evidenced by our debate motion, the party decided that the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill was such a threat to our fundamental right to freedom of speech that it must be withdrawn.”