The Scottish Tories did their best to bury Boris Johnson in their morning conference agenda yesterday, but at least they let him speak. Ruth Davidson famously banned the PM from her conference in 2019.

He didn't say much. In a pre-recorded address, Mr Johnson called on Nicola Sturgeon to abandon her “divisive” referendum and “work together to protect the health and jobs of the people of Scotland”. Well he would, wouldn't he. At least there were no more facepalm moments.

Douglas Ross, in his first conference as Scottish Conservative leader, showed that he's capable enough and has the essential quality of not sounding like a Tory. But he’s no Ruth Davidson. Though he has successfully created distance between himself and Boris Johnson. A fortnight ago Mr Ross demanded, and got, a commitment to extend furlough in Scotland whether England is locked down or not.

That was certainly noticed. As was Mr Ross's resignation from his ministerial post in May in protest over Dominic Cummings' bending of the lockdown rules. Last week, he also made clear in “robust” terms that he didn't agree with Boris Johnson that devolution has been a disaster. The PM insists he was misquoted.

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Mr Ross's speech was competent, if curiously off camera. He doesn't want to talk about Brexit, or the constitution and is trying hard to fashion a new Scottish Tory agenda. It isn't easy. Community empowerment, abolishing the not proven verdict and tougher sentences are not striking enough policies to obscure the towering presence of his UK leader.

The Boris problem cannot be solved by conventional retail politics - by levelling up, promising green jobs, financing the Covid rebuild. It can't be addressed by support for climate change policies or by constitutional innovations. Still less by appeals to the great unifying cause of the United Kingdom

The problem with the Prime Minister is intractable because it isn't entirely rational. It is an emotional aversion to his very character, his personality. He is seen by many Scots as the epitome of the English toff and represents all they hate about the public school-educated upper classes. The plummy accent, the languid intellectualism, the sense of just being so bloody...English.

Mrs Thatcher suffered from casual anglophobia too. “That Bloody Woman” was how she was described on many Scottish doorsteps. But misogyny apart, that had a lot to do with her policies. The destruction of Scottish manufacturing industry, the confrontation with the miners, the syphoning south of North Sea oil to pay for mass unemployment. It was largely a sense of historic injustice that drove the Scots away from the Conservative and Unionist party – a party that Scots had supported in very large numbers until she came along, with her extravagant hair and strangled vowels..

Boris Johnson is of course identified above all by the policy of Brexit. Though I sometimes think this is more like an excuse for loathing him rather than something Scots care deeply about. Europe has never been all that big an issue in Scotland. What did the damage was Scotland's vote to Remain being dismissed.

This fed into the popular stereotype of Boris Johnson as a kind of Brexit dictator, prepared to prorogue the UK parliament, and seize powers from the Scottish parliament to further his neo-imperial ambitions for a new Global Britain. That aroused historic feelings of inferiority and a vague sense of guilt. Scots don't like to be reminded about how many of their countrymen benefited materially from the British Empire.

Is there anything the Prime Minister can do to mitigate this aversion? More to the point, is there anything the Scottish Tories can do to appeal over the head of this icon of privilege? The most obvious solution, which has been rejected, is go the full home rule - create a distinct and autonomous Scottish Conservative Party along the lines of the Bavarian CDU. That's not going to happen.

Truth is, many Conservatives in Scotland actually agree with Mr Johnson that devolution has been a disaster. They are proud to be “devosceptic” and think the Scottish parliament is a costly waste of space. They aren't all Tories either. Some in the Labour Party would be happy to repeal the Scotland Act tomorrow if they thought it was possible.

READ MORE: Douglass Ross delivers alternative vision for the country at Scottish Conservative Party conference

These ultra-unionists are not represented by any party in Scotland right now. We don't know how many of them there are, but they are vocal. They overlap with the socially conservative, older voters who hate the EU, the smacking ban and think climate change is overblown.

This is not how Douglas Ross wants Conservatism to be projected in Scotland. He wants to be seen as green, modern, inclusive and conspicuously Scottish. But his rebranding of Conservatism is always in danger of being sabotaged by the more reactionary voices who tend to represent the right on social media.

The Twitter megaphone is of course largely in the hands of nationalists and the Remain left. Devosceptic Tories are a minority - but they make a disproportionate noise and their attacks on politically correct laws and the dismal quality of MSPs can't help but rub off on the Tories. Sometimes they're even right.

Meanwhile, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon has invaded traditional Tory territory on the economy. Since the publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission report, the Scottish Government is arguably now more fiscally conservative than the UK Conservative government. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has been spending like there is no tomorrow and letting the deficit go hang. The SGC played by much more conventional rules on spending restraint. Nicola Sturgeon has held out against increasing the top rate of tax in Scotland, while Rishi Sunak is targeting top rate pension relief.

Scottish voters appear to be largely content with Ms Sturgeon's handling of the economy, despite poor growth rates and little sign of industrial innovation. Her handling of Covid has won extravagant praise even though her actual performance has been little better than the rest of the UK. In last week's BBC poll, 72% said they thought the FM had done well on Covid, against only 25% for Boris Johnson. She burnishes her reputation for radicalism, now largely based on gender politics and the environment, despite only modest success on narrowing the class gap in educational attainment. Mr Ross is right to stress that record.

But how does a centrist Conservative party go about contesting a centrist SNP? There's not much political bandwidth left. And much of that is occupied by the kenspeckle character of the Prime Minister. The Conservatives desperately need something to say on the constitution – but what? They can promise more powers, but who will believe them when powers repatriated from Brussels are going largely to Westminster in order to facilitate the creation of a UK internal market.

Until someone comes along with a more populist version of right of centre politics, the Sottish Tories are going to have to be content with at least being in a slightly better place than Labour. But as Donald Trump would put it, they're still losers.