IT’S been a tough intiation for Douglas Ross. 

The new Scottish Tory leader, who took over from a stiletto-sprinkled Jackson Carlaw in August, has been flung in at the deep end of the election.

Why, the very fate of the Union is on his shoulders. Or so he’d have you believe. 

His message has been relentless - vote Tory or risk a second SNP majority and another independence referendum.

That Boris Johnson has already said there won’t be a referendum, or that few Prime Ministers could so ill-afford to grant one, is invariably omitted.

But the mantra that worked so well for Ruth Davidson in 2016 is being rerun nevertheless, with added vitriol and a warning that even if no legal referendum transpire, the SNP will fill the next five years with a chaotic stab at one when the Covid recovery ought to be paramount.

It also falls to Mr Ross to try to stop a Labour revival getting off the ground in Scotland.

As long as Scottish Labour struggles, Sir Keir Starmer cannot become Prime Minister, as he would need a healthy cohort of Scottish MPs to enter Number 10. 

A key goal is therefore to keep Labour at bay and the Tories in second place at Holyrood.

Alas for Mr Ross, Scottish Labour also has a new leader, and he has a spring in his step.

Moreover, Anas Sarwar has been getting plaudits as the better of the two rookies.

However Mr Ross remains confident that he will ultimately get more MSPs, insisting voters opposed to Indyref2 know who to back to thwart the SNP best.

“There's a clear divide in this campaign between the SNP, who if they get another majority want to have another referendum without setting out the details of what that would mean, and the Scottish Conservatives who will be the strongest party to stop that,” he says. 

“The Labour Party are not strong enough to challenge the SNP and don't have a strong message on the Union and the Scottish conservatives do.”

Mr Ross’s party has been driving home the message to vote Tory on the regional list, but he also expects to “do well” in the seven constituencies the party is defending.

He even has his eye on a couple of possible gains, citing Liz Smith’s attempt to pick up Perthshire South and Kinross-Shire, where SNP incumbent Roseanna Cunningham is standing down and leaving behind a mouth-watering majority of just 1,422.

Mr Ross, who is expected to return to Holyrood next week after a four-year absence as a Highlands list MSP, is also hoping the Tories can win the Scottish Parliament equivalent of his own Westminster seat of Moray.

He seems to be enjoying his first campaign as a leader, but admits it’s an odd one because of the pandemic.

“This campaign, and I think all parties are guilty, has not ignited people’s imaginations,” he says. 

“There's not as much interaction. Engagement between politicians and voters is not always the best for the politicians, but at least you hear exactly what people are thinking. 

“I think people are rightly pre-occupied by their health, jobs, families and communities. 

“I was in Milngavie Main Street last week. That was good because people just came up and said they thought X was good or Y was bad.

"I think if we'd been able to do a bit more of that, it would have been better, but I understand why it's difficult to campaign in traditional ways.”

His new role as leader has also brought more scrutiny.

He has had to defend his record in his early political career as a Moray councillor, including hostility to gypsy travellers and opposing same-sex marriage.

In Tuesday’s Channel 4 debate, he backtracked on same-sex marriage, saying he fully supported it.

At which Mr Sarwar shouted: “The cuddly Tories under Ruth Davidson are well and truly gone. We’re back to the same old Tories.” 

So is he old-fashioned?

“No, I don't believe so,” he says warily.

“But I will always try and represent issues that are put to me. In the two issues you've highlighted, people contacted me as a local councillor and shared their views. I think it's always right that there is a balanced discussion and we do hear from both sides. 

“People can look at the manifesto, and the commitments we've made, and see the party I lead is one that tries to reflect and represent views right and for across the country.”

But surely there’s a difference between reflecting constituents’ views on travellers and a conscience issue like same-sex marriage when his own view is key?

“No, I'm saying I support gay marriage. I said it last night. I’ve got to look at where I was in 2014 [when it was legalised] and what I said then and where I am now, and that is someone who fully supports same-sex marriages.”

Has he simply grown up? Become more enlightened?

“When I was discussing that as a Moray councillor, I hadn't been sitting through the debate that MSPs had heard at Holyrood. I put forward views of both those who are supportive of same sex managers and those who were against it. But now I’m absolutely behind it.”

Talking of Ruth Davidson, Mr Ross has been relegated to the back of election leaflets and party broadcasts, with his predecessor’s predecessor given the star billing.

Has he established himself as his own person?

“I don't think it's a bad thing that the Scottish Conservatives have such a strong, passionate, authentic voice standing up for the Union in Ruth Davidson,” he says with real warmth.

“She is someone who has done so much for pro-UK cause here in Scotland, for Scotland's place in the United Kingdom, and I think it would be crazy for any party leader not to use an asset like that in a campaign where the referendum has been put front and centre by the SNP in the future of our country is at stake. We use absolutely all and any passionate voices, and that's why I'm delighted to come in alongside Ruth Davidson.

“It would be a failure in my duty as leader of the party not to use the best assets.”


Could he say any of the above about Boris Johnson, who has been kept away from the campaign border? 

The warmth vanishes. “The Prime Minister is clear that this is my campaign up here, and I campaign on our manifesto with my team,” he recites.

“Ruth is still a member of the Scottish Parliament representing Edinburgh Central until election day, so it's right that she plays a big role in this campaign.”

But if it’s all hands to the pumps, why isn’t the Prime Minister here too?

“Because we're running a campaign here that is very much a Scottish Conservative campaign. I lead the Scottish Conservative Party, the Prime Minister backs what we're doing trying to stop an SNP majority, stop them taking the country back through another independence referendum and getting our parliament focused on recovery and rebuilding.”

Even if he’s not present on the ground in Scotland, Mr Johnson remains all over the airwaves, and Mr Ross’s media briefings are often dominated by the latest sleaze and dishonour rows emanating from Number 10.

Indeed, we’re doing this interview just as Mr Johnson is having a meltdown at PMQs over who initially paid for the designer renovation of his Downing Street flat.

As Mr Ross is a part-time football referee, how about a sporting metaphor. Isn’t leading the Scottish Tories like trying to run down the pitch in the mascot’s costume?

Isn’t the PM an exhausting, flapping encumbrance?

He doesn't deny it, but doesn't accept it either.

“Look, this is an election to form the next Scottish Parliament of 129 MSPs of people who are on the ballot paper of parties who are represented here in Scotland and the Scottish conservative and Unionist Party is led by me. 

“It's our manifesto, our team, and there is a stark choice at this election - it’s support the Scottish Conservatives to stop an SNP majority and stop an independence referendum, or the SNP get their way and they divide our country all over again.

“And the Prime Minister is absolutely behind our efforts to stop that SNP majority, because the threat to our recovery and the threat to families and individuals from the uncertainty of another independence referendum is absolutely something I want to stop.”

But what voter demographic does Mr Johnson actually help you expand? How does he bring more votes to you than he loses? Perhaps to contain an understandable frustration, Mr Ross again reaches for a rote response. 

“Well, he's the Prime Minister of the whole of the United Kingdom, and I think people have seen over the last year the benefits of being in the UK and decisions taken by the government that he leads.

“For example, the furlough scheme and self employed income support, the business support, the support for hospitality in terms of a reduction in VAT, and of course the vaccination rollout. 

“People do understand that the decisions he took at the time, which were roundly criticised by senior members of the SNP, have paid dividends. Now 61.3% of Scots are protected with at least one dose of the vaccine. 

“So there is no doubt that people can see day-in day-out that our way out of this pandemic, our way to move forward, is largely down to the success of the UK vaccination scheme that has been rolled out by our outstanding NHS staff, volunteers and British armed forces.

“But that's only available because the decisions he took as Prime Minister and the UK Government took in the early days of this pandemic.”

Last week Mr Ross accused the SNP of being “sleaze-ridden”. Surely he’s on thin ice with that line of attack given the maelstrom at Wesdtminster?

He points out several SNP MPs are under investigation for alleged misconduct, while two SNP MSPs in the last parliament disowned for “completely unacceptable” behaviour, a reference to former minister Mark McDonald and former finance secretary Derek Mackay. 

“I don't think any party is immune from the criticisms and the concerns that the public rightly raise. But I think people also see at this selection, it's not about what's happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it's about our future here in Scotland.”

Let’s look at Mr Ross’s record. Before he became MP for Moray in 2017, he was briefly a Highlands & Islands list MSP and needed somewhere to stay in Edinburgh. 

After a few months in hotels, he started renting a £1000-a-month flat a few minutes from the parliament which his friend and fellow match official Andrew Dallas, and a second man, had just bought jointly for £265,000, the pair’s only property in the capital. 

Using his parliamentary expenses, Mr Ross ended up directing £7000 in rent payments and a £1000 rental deposit to his landlords before his first spell at Holyrood was cut short by the 2017 general election.

It wasn’t against Holyrood rules - only renting from close family, business associates and other MSPs is banned - but doesn’t using your position to steer public money to a pal amount to cronyism? 

Mr Ross describes Mr Dallas as a “good friend and refereeing colleague”, says he doesn’t know the other joint landlord, and insists there was nothing untoward.

“It was all within the rules, and that was a flat in that was rented at the value that was well within the budget of the Scottish Parliament,” he says.

“I was made aware of the opportunity to rent that flat in the usual way.”

You were the first tenant?

“Yes, and since then it has been rented out to others. But I don't think there is anything of concern, because as you say it was all absolutely within the Scottish Parliament guidance for renting flats.

"As someone representing an area a long way away from Edinburgh, the Highlands & Islands region covers 44% of the landmass of Scotland, I needed accommodation in Edinburgh. 

“It was either that or stay in a hotel for several nights a week when I come down to Edinburgh, and I took an opportunity to rent a flat that was absolutely and fully within the guidance that the Scottish Parliament sets out.”

But do you think, looking back, it still looks quite as wholesome in the current climate? The fact you were using your position as a politician to claim public expenses, which then ended up benefiting your pal?

He replies: “I think the fact that no one ever raised this when I was actually renting the flat, it gives a suggestion that it was not an issue.”

Now I’m raising it. Was it perhaps not the wisest choice?

“What I'm saying is that was all fully declared in the year that I was an MSP and no one raised concerns.

“I knew Andrew Dallas back at that time, I still know him now, and I rented a flat in accordance with the guidance set out by the Scottish Parliament, within their limits of renting accommodation, and everything was fully detailed and outlined, and complied with what was asked for of MSPs at the time that I was renting the property.”

So if I were to say to you, that looks like cronyism to me, you would see what?

“I would say I rented a flat fully compliant with guidance issued by the Scottish Parliament for MSPs who represent constituencies or regions a significant distance from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.”

His opponents are unlikely to agree. 

Besides the immediate prospect of the election, there’s also Mr Ross’s role in holding the thin blue line in Scotland and trying to nip a Labour revival in the bud. 

“I've never discussed it with the Prime Minister, but it is clear that Keir Starmer’s route to Number 10 would go through Scotland,” he says.

“That's either by winning back a lot of seats here in Scotland, or by doing a coalition in a deal with the SNP.

“That's what makes it so difficult for Anas Sarwar and Scottish Labour, ultimately they will do a deal with the SNP if it meant getting Keir Starmer into Number 10.

“I just don't see [a Labour revival] happening. We've seen at every single election since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Labour Party have lost seats and votes. 

“And even with a new leader, they're not making the big breakthrough that they perhaps expected. Because they are still confused on their position on the Union.

“A number of Anas Sarwar’s candidates seeking election to Holyrood support a second independence referendum. And that's why people unite behind the Scottish conservatives.

“Traditional Labour voters, who will be looking on at a party that was once so strong right across Scotland, see it not being the party that it once, it not being that strong party for the Union, and seeing at this election that if they want to protect Scotland's place in the UK, even though they have supported possibly Labour throughout their life, at this election they have to support the Scottish Cosnervatives to stop that SNP majority and another referendum.”

He was a Scotland Office minister before resigning in disgust last year over the Dominic Cummings affair.

Doesn’t he want to govern again instead of perpetual opposition at Holyrood? 

“We've got to wait see how the votes roll out across the country and how that is reflected in the MSPs elected.

"But I think that this a real opportunity, if we can take away the threat of another independence referendum, to have a parliament that's actually focused on recovery and rebuilding. 

“And if the parties agree with that and the way we can approach that, then I think the parties should work together.

“But we won't be able to do that in some of the other pro-UK parties don't accept the biggest threat to our recovery is another independence referendum.

“While people are at home watching the news worried about their jobs, worried about when they can actually get back to a form of normality, they don't just want politics as usual from their MSPs, from their MPs.

“They don't want to see this continued fighting between Holyrood and Westminster.

“When I was a minister, one of the things I was most excited about was city and region growth deals, because it's actually one of the few examples of when the  [Edinburgh and London] governments work together.

"Yes, there's still a bit of politicking at the edges, but that's listening to communities, working with local authorities, and the two governments putting in funding for projects that are going to improve an area.

"Surely that's what we should try to seek to get out of the next parliament rather than more division?”