The National:

IN retrospect, the obvious suspicion about Douglas Ross's display of hitherto unguessed-at backbone in becoming the only Tory minister to resign over the Cummings affair is that he had a fair idea that his leadership tilt was imminent and that he thought semi-distancing himself from Boris Johnson's government would prove to be advantageous with Scottish voters.

But if that's right, doesn't it seem rather odd that he would apparently have given Michelle Ballantyne an assurance that he will lead a "Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-Nat party"? In a word, no. Leadership candidates often pander to the worst instincts of their party's base while attempting to get elected, before sharply "pivoting" (as American pundits would say) once in harness. In Ross’s case, it's unlikely that he saw Ballantyne as any kind of threat to his chances – the aim is instead to avoid the delay of a contested election.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross 'vows to lead Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti nat party'

That said, given that Ross appears to have been hand-picked for his new role by Ruth Davidson, we shouldn't be too sceptical about the "anti-nat" part of his promise to Ballantyne – in fact that's all too plausible. And if the aim of the exercise is to simply hold the seats that the Tories already have, rather than to win new converts, there may even be some strategic logic to it.

Polling has often shown near-unanimity among existing Conservative voters in their opposition to independence and their disdain for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP – although we do now have to add the small caveat that some of them may have had their minds opened a little by the events of the pandemic. A poll commissioned by my blog Scot Goes Pop two months ago found, very surprisingly, that people who voted Tory in last year's General Election were practically split down the middle on whether the Scottish public would be more safe or less safe if the UK Government's powers over lockdown were transferred to the Scottish Government.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

The "Boris backing" part of the promise would almost certainly be far more problematical. Superficially, the Scottish poll published a few days ago by YouGov might give the impression that the Prime Minister is an asset for the Scottish Tories among their core support because 70% of 2019 Conservative voters have a favourable view of him. But the flipside of the coin is that 29% have an unfavourable view, and Ross simply cannot afford to shed a quarter or a third of the Tory vote.

He'd be unlikely to replace those voters with Boris fans from other parties, because the only other significant reservoir of sympathy for the PM is to be found among the LibDem vote, and some of those people may well be Tories who vote LibDem on a tactical basis to stop the SNP. So my guess is that Ross may try to have it both ways by making occasional loyal comments about Boris, but not hugging him too close.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross ‘rewriting history’ with indyref2 claim

On the Brexit front, it's much harder to assess what the pitch is likely to be, not least because of Ross's own complex voting history. He voted Remain in 2016 but then demanded that the will of the people (the British people rather than the Scottish people, naturally) should be respected. He also voted against Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, indicating a preference for a harder Brexit. But that may have been a nod towards his unusually Brexit-friendly electorate in the Moray constituency, which he'll no longer need to worry about as leader – assuming he stands on the regional list as rumoured.

Perhaps, then, we can expect a reversion to the Davidson approach of constantly appealing for moderation on Brexit but never actually taking a stand when those appeals are, as always, ignored. And given the largely pro-Brexit character of the Scottish Tory vote, that may not be a bad way of retaining seats, although it's a fairly hopeless way of reaching out to the centre-ground of a solidly Remain country.

If a full-throttled "Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-nat" approach was really going to work, we'd already know, because Jackson Carlaw's tenure would have been a tremendous success. (It's somewhat ironic that Michelle Ballantyne was Carlaw's biggest critic, given that he was doing exactly what she claims to want.)

Ross is almost certainly ambitious enough to break his promise to Ballantyne, at least in part, but he's probably not ambitious enough to truly think out of the box and break through the glass ceiling on Scottish Tory support. We can expect, at best, a great deal of running to stand still.

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