YOU can rely on Jacob Rees-Mogg to make you wish Scotland were a separate country.

He’s been below the radar for a few weeks, since shamelessly fronting up efforts to get his crony Owen Paterson off the hook for sleaze, a move that ended with a humiliating government u-turn.

But with ministers hiding under their desks or riding the London Underground all afternoon on Wednesday to avoid taking calls, the Downing Street press office needed someone who would go on TV and defend Boris Johnson’s lockdown partying, so they let Jacob out of his cage.

And we got the full Rees-Mogg. The ultra-conservative, Eton-educated elitist reveres the old order, including, it appears, the primacy of the London government in all things.

His ignorance of Scottish politics runs deep. To him, it would appear, the government in London is the real one and the devolved institutions are jumped-up student unions: how else to explain his comment to Kirsty Wark that Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary, was a “much more substantial and important figure” than the Tories’ “lightweight” Holyrood leader Douglas Ross?

READ MORE REBECCA McQUILLAN: To change UK, we must first ditch monarchy

A curious remark, given that Mr Jack rose without trace, making barely a ripple in Scottish politics before becoming Scottish secretary, a role he has hardly made waves in since.

So why is it that pro-Brexit millionaire Mr Rees-Mogg has such high regard for pro-Brexit millionaire Mr Jack? Why does he see him as a more heavyweight figure than Mr Ross, a modest young farmer-turned-politican, who leads the Tories in Scotland, faces Nicola Sturgeon each week at Holyrood and is trying to save his party from the damage Boris Johnson is doing to it?

Could elitism and disdain for devolution come into it? Or might Mr Rees-Mogg be in the self-preservation game, trying to shore up the only man, Mr Johnson, ever likely to let him attend cabinet, by attacking the Prime Minister’s critics? Perhaps it’s both. If Mr Rees-Mogg’s show of contempt for Douglas Ross doesn’t make the Scottish Tories resolve to cut their ties of loyalty to the London party, you wonder what would.

A constitutional crisis within the party is brewing, and not before time. Mr Rees-Mogg’s dig at the Tories’ Holyrood leader echoes Mr Johnson’s remark that devolution was Tony Blair’s biggest mistake: this is a government that doesn’t truly appreciate devolution.

No wonder most Tory MSPs at Holyrood, as well as former Tory leaders Ruth Davidson and Jackson Carlaw, back Mr Ross’s calls for Mr Johnson to resign. After years of exasperation, their resolve has hardened to the consistency of Aberdeen granite. No more fannying around: they want rid of the Prime Minister and seem prepared, at last, to face the consequences for their party.

On BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, the former Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins, a fellow Herald columnist, pointedly observed that Douglas Ross and his team have “very deep questions to ask about the association they wanted to continue to have… with the UK Conservative party”.

This points to a reopening of discussions about a breakaway Scottish centre-right party that no longer has to keep faith with the UK Tory leader.

READ MORE REBECCA MCQUILLAN: Scotland's future in Johnson's hands

Murdo Fraser MSP has long advocated this route. He first argued for a separate Scottish party with a new name a decade ago, making the point that “there is a lot of interest in centre-right values amongst people in Scotland but they don't vote for the Conservative Party”. The new party’s MPs would sit with the Conservatives at Westminster, he envisaged, but would have their own policies.

He renewed those calls after Mr Johnson became Prime Minister, arguing that there was a model for how the new structure could work in the Quebec Liberal Party, which in spite of its name is a centre-right party economically. The Canadian Conservative Party, he noted, did not contest elections in the Quebec assembly but right-leaning voters backed the Quebec Liberals instead. The party had been electorally successful.

But the idea gives some Tories the heebie-jeebies. They fear that breaking away from the Westminster Tories would undermine their message of opposition to the SNP’s plans for Scotland to break away from the UK.

A federal structure, however, is not separation. Alluding to two defeated independence referenda in Quebec, Mr Fraser wrote in 2019: “The lesson of politics in Quebec is that when the forces of federalism come together they can see off the threat of separation.”

A UK federation of conservative parties is the obvious next step for progressive Tories. It doesn’t just help liberate Scottish Tory politicians from being abject apologists for their UK counterparts, it would bring the Scottish Tories on board at last with federalism, the progressive way of preserving the UK long favoured by the Lib Dems and increasingly popular among Labour figures.

Mr Ross had been put in an impossible position by Mr Johnson’s lies. Had he tolerated the Prime Minister’s hypocrisy, how could he possibly have held the Scottish Government to account ever again over its Covid policy, or indeed over any wrongdoing by Scottish ministers? It was either call for him to go or sink in the mire of the PM’s lies. Now Mr Ross should follow through by distancing the Scottish party from Westminster.

Not that it would absolve him or his colleagues of guilt for their part in inflicting Mr Johnson on us all. Douglas Ross backed Mr Johnson as leader in the second ballot of Conservative MPs in 2019. He did so knowing the content of Mr Johnson’s character: highlights in the Johnson dossier of dishonesty include being sacked from a journalism job for lying, being sacked as a shadow minister for a separate lie and repeatedly telling the whopper that leaving Europe would result in £350m a week coming back from Brussels to the NHS.

But there’s a chance here for a new start of sorts by breaking away, a move which you would think would appeal to Scottish Conservatives, given that shaming the Scottish Tories over the antics of Westminster Conservatives is (understandably) the SNP’s favourite pastime.

Meanwhile, the constitutional debate has stagnated. It’s impossible to discern how Nicola Sturgeon can force the referendum she says she wants. And while we know that Scottish voters are dissatisfied with the status quo, that doesn’t mean they want independence.

A third way – some form of federalism – is an alternative many would likely prefer. Up until now the Tories have tended to peddle a cautious, change-resistant version of the union, but as a separate party they could confidently advocate a more progressive, looser, federal structure, as the Lib Dems already do and Labour is warming to. It’s a reform that, for those who would preserve the UK, could draw support away from independence. The time for them to act is now, while Tory MSPs’ blood is up, not in six months’ time.

There’s an opportunity here, if Douglas Ross is brave enough to take it.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.