WHICH Conservative leader will remain in post for longer: Liz Truss or Douglas Ross?

It’s all gone rather quiet for Mr Ross of late, the fiasco of the Truss premiership drowning out the Scottish Tories’ internal squabbles. Yet it was only a fortnight ago that he conceded that there were not one but two plots to bring him down, calling out his unhappy MSPs to put up or shut up.

It looks as though they have done the latter. Both plots have fizzled out. The first fell victim to the spectacular collapse of Trussonomics. There are those in the ranks of Tory MSPs who have been preaching for years the mantra that you grow the economy by cutting taxes at the top end. But pitching for the Scottish leadership on that particular policy platform right now would be a fool’s errand. It’s not Mr Ross who has seen off that challenge: it’s the bond markets.

The second would-be plot was focused much more on the question of what’s wrong with Douglas Ross than with the answer of who should replace him. Such plots are never worth taking seriously – to replace a leader against his or her will requires two things. First, you need a clear reason as to why. And, second, you also need a compelling alternative. Asking the question without being able (or willing) to answer it is no good to anyone – such plotters are just wasting their time. There is an awful lot of that at Holyrood.

It may well be that Ms Truss survives for the same reason. There is self-evidently a clear reason to replace her already. But the parliamentary party in Westminster is hopelessly divided as to whom to replace her with. The right wing wants Suella Braverman. The one nation crowd cannot decide between Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt. The ones in the middle want Ben Wallace, unless they want Penny Mordaunt instead. And, even now, there are those who just want Boris Johnson back. If Ms Truss has a path to survival, surely that is it: keep her party as divided as it can be on the matter of succession, and sit back quietly while Jeremy Hunt runs her Government for her. Norman Lamont’s old cliché, “in office but not in power”, has never been so true.

My own view about the Scottish Tories is that it is not the leader who is the main problem. For sure, Douglas Ross has his weaknesses – principally that he just never comes across as being very likeable – but changing the leader without addressing the underlying problem the party faces would be pointless.

The underlying problem is that the party does not want to lead. It wants to follow. Take tax – the biggest single item on the British political agenda since Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget a month ago. What is Scottish Conservative policy on tax?

Now, admittedly this is complicated. Taxation in Scotland is neither fully reserved to Westminster, nor fully devolved to Holyrood. It is shared between the two governments. This is normal in federal countries such as Canada and the US, but we are still getting used to it here. Let’s just focus for the moment on the devolved bits of tax, which include all bands, rates, and thresholds of income tax on earnings. It was abolishing one of these bands – the top rate of 45p – that first got Mr Kwarteng into so much trouble, you will recall. And this week Mr Hunt announced that Ms Truss’s plan to reduce the basic rate to 19p will be put on hold, indefinitely.

None of this affects Scotland, where the bands, rates and thresholds of income tax are set by Holyrood, not Westminster, and where Scottish Ministers, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, make the key decisions. So what have the Scottish Tories had to say about income tax policy here in Scotland? All they’ve said is that, whatever the Chancellor does, the Scottish Ministers should do, too. When the 45p rate was being abolished in England, they argued it should be abolished in Scotland too. When the basic rate was being reduced to 19p in England, they argued it should be in Scotland too. And now both policies have been reversed in England? Well, they’ve gone strangely quiet about that, but they no doubt think that Scotland should follow the path set by the new Chancellor, and keep rates where they are.

This isn’t leadership: it’s followership. The Scottish Tories don’t have a leader who leads: they have a leader who follows. And, despite being the party that introduced tax devolution to Scotland, in all the years since they have never once had a policy as to how devolved tax should work. All they’ve had to say is that Scotland should follow England. If they believe that income tax policy should be the same throughout the United Kingdom, with no differentials anywhere, why on earth did they devolve it? The very point of devolution is to allow different nations within the UK to develop different policies to suit their needs, without breaking the kingdom up.

Through being followers not leaders, this is the opportunity the Scottish Tories have missed. They were the architects of Scottish tax devolution. They wrote it. They designed it. They delivered it. But they have never capitalised on it. In all their years as Scotland’s principal opposition to the SNP they have never once produced an alternative budget, setting out a vision of tax and spend to rival the SNP’s deep-rooted preference for a high tax, low growth Scotland.

And even now, even amid the chaos of u-turn upon u-turn in the Treasury and No 10, the Scottish Tories have nothing to say about how devolved tax policy could be used creatively, to help dig Scotland out of its fiscal hole. Until that happens—until the party has something useful to say—it doesn’t much matter who the leader is.

Adam Tomkins was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.

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