THE problem with quitting on principle is that you can only do it so many times.

Before flouncing out shouting “this is the last straw!”, it’s wise to consider if it might actually only be the second-last straw. Especially if you’re a Tory, and you are objecting to what you think might be the worst Tory scandal of any given year. “They surely can’t sink any lower than this,” you might be thinking. Oh, but they can. They definitely can.

Douglas Ross surprised many when he dramatically quit his role as a minister in the Scotland Office in the wake of the Dominic Cummings scandal back in May. Hadn’t he been considered one to watch, a rising star in the ranks? By voting with his feet against Boris Johnson – and, more importantly, Cummings – he relegated himself to the subs bench, apparently stalling his own political career.

“I realise both the immediate and long-term implications of my decision to resign from government,” he said at the time. Ha! You bet he did. What looked like an honourable – if surprising – sacrifice back in May took on a very different appearance three months later, when the comeback kid reinvented himself as leader of the Scottish Tories almost overnight.

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On the face of it, the strategy was inspired: the Conservatives desperately needed another fresh-faced young leader who could hoodwink the Scottish people into thinking he wasn’t really a Tory at all, at least for long enough to secure their votes. The political equivalent of a swaggering lothario who whispers “I’m not like other guys” once he has a woman’s attention, only to exit via the bedroom window the following morning.

But that routine, too, has a sell-by date, and I’m not sure “I stood up to Boris Johnson” will work as a unique selling point during the Holyrood election campaign – unless perhaps Ross knows something we don’t about the Prime Minister’s own immediate and long-term plans.

Of course, he didn’t actually stand up to Johnson this week. True, he didn’t fall to the floor and roll over by voting against Labour’s motion to provide free school meals in the holidays during the pandemic, but gosh, what a low bar is being set if “not actively trying to deny needy children food” is considered noble or impressive.

And what a strange definition of “leader” is being applied here, when all of the other Scottish Tory MPs voted with the government. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? Do they honestly think we believe that Ross is the boss, rather than just a puppet playing the good cop to Johnson’s bad one so that he can wriggle out of difficult questions from Scottish journalists further down the line?

More accurately, he’s playing the cop who sits silently gazing out of the window, chewing the end of his pen, while an incompetent cop rambles on about how no deal is better than a bad plea deal and getting prison done is the best way to take back control when a situation gets sticky.

It beggars belief that they expect us to buy Ross’s “compassionate Conservative” act, including a specific pledge to provide free school meals to all primary pupils in Scotland, when he won’t even vote to make these available to the youngsters in England who need them most, at a time of unprecedented global crisis.

A Scottish Conservative spokesman yesterday told The Scotsman: “The motion last night related to provision in England, which is the responsibility of the UK Government”, and urged parties at Holyrood to back the Tories’ proposals in the Scottish Parliament. Are they trying to imply it was legitimate for Ross to abstain on the grounds that English votes should decide English laws – or in this case, English policies? In that case, someone really should have informed David Duguid, Alister Jack, Andrew Bowie, John Lamont and David Mundell.

Unless – surely not – the Scottish Tories are mere lobby fodder, and only Ross is permitted to think for himself because he is the party poster boy, the new media darling, who is permitted to don a pair of marigolds while his colleagues get their hands dirty voting along the usual “nasty party” lines. He is allowed – nay, encouraged – to think for himself, and to bend with the wind whenever it suits him.

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With one key exception, of course. The name of the campaign is “Independence for Douglas Ross”, not the other way around. It’s about standing up for the interests of Douglas Ross, giving more powers to Douglas Ross, and promoting a positive vision of the Union that has Douglas Ross in the foreground, winking at the camera while saying “ugh, what are these Tories like?”

So what’s his game plan for next year? Once he’s back in the Scottish Parliament, via the regional list, how will he continue to maintain his independence from both his Westminster bosses and his Scottish colleagues?

I’m really not convinced he has thought this through. Perhaps we are being too cynical to imagine his promotion was carefully mapped out by Johnson and co back in the summer. Maybe Ross really is a man of principle, who understood the implications of accepting this poisoned chalice but pressed ahead anyway just to spare us all further exposure to Michelle Ballantyne.

Maybe he is biding his time, and preparing to resign in protest if Johnson outstays his welcome then ramps up his anti-independence dirty tricks campaign. Perhaps it’s a long shot, but we can dream!