JACKSON CARLAW’S resignation as leader is

a blow to the Scottish Conservatives and, more importantly, leaves a gap in the ranks of those wanting to advance the case for Scotland’s full continuing partnership in the United Kingdom.

Not because Mr Carlaw was doing so particularly effectively; as he admitted, whatever his other qualities, he was not best placed to advance that stance as it has come under renewed pressure.

The blow is not to arguments for the Union themselves, which remain as coherent and strong as they did at the referendum. Indeed, after Brexit and the attendant difficulties of disentangling a nation from a much looser union, those who wish to fight for Scotland’s place in the UK ought to have additional firepower on their side.

Instead, the will of the Scottish people, confirmed six years ago, which in normal circumstances would still be the dominant position, looks more perilous and less well defended than ever. While some of the credit (from a nationalist perspective) for that may be due to the parliamentary dominance, on both fronts, of the SNP, and widespread approval of its leadership, a principal cause must be the feebleness of those defending the Union.

Mr Carlaw’s departure exposes the awkward truth that, if he is not the right person for the job, there are no obvious candidates who would be a significant improvement. With the Scottish Labour Party and the LibDems in continued disarray, that must worry Unionists, even those who hold no brief for the Tories. They may not care that the Conservatives are polling 35 points behind the SNP, but they should be alarmed that there is no effective opposition being presented to the party of government.

The unthinking assumption that Nicola Sturgeon has been wonderfully effective during the coronavirus crisis, for example, is disproven by figures showing Scotland as the third-worst affected country in Europe. England (first or second-worst, depending on the timing selected) may have handled things even more badly, but Holyrood has hardly covered itself in glory, even if you trust the numbers.

Ms Sturgeon has just been rebuked by the Office for Statistical Regulation for presenting unsubstantiated and misleading figures. The Scottish Government’s dismal handling of infection in care homes, its slowness in introducing testing and its evasions over early, preventable, outbreaks do not indicate unalloyed success, even if the presentation of policies (almost identical to the rest of the UK) has been less shambolic. They are no cause for congratulation, still less for the First Minister’s 82 per cent approval rating.

But that, too, is a failure of opposition. If independence is, as seems certain, to be the dominant question when the health crisis finally recedes, it will be a national catastrophe if no one is offering constant, forceful challenges to the government.

Airy assumptions that Ms Sturgeon has had a “good war” during the Covid outbreak pose the alarming prospect of what could happen if no credible political leadership is available to rebut similarly unfounded claims about the case for breaking up the UK. That ought to be welcomed even

by convinced nationalists. The country will not be served

on either side by wishful thinking, economic fantasy or evasions and half-truths. Robust challenges are the foundation of good decisions.

It may be that Douglas Ross, or some previously unknown figure, will emerge as an effective, even popular, voice for the Union (as Ruth Davidson did), but it seems – to put it bluntly – unlikely.

It was Scotland’s decision to reject independence, but the future of the Union is a grave concern for the whole of the UK. The national party obviously cannot be seen to interfere in Scottish Tories’ choices, but if some senior UK figure, such as Michael Gove, were voluntarily to enter the fray, it might galvanise challenges to SNP hegemony. It would at least indicate the Conservative and Unionist Party took the second half of their name seriously.