Michael Matheson iPad expenses: Douglas Ross helped expose scandal, but it won't halt Scottish Tories' decline – Euan McColm
Credit where it’s due: Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has done a first-class job of being an opposition politician in recent weeks. He correctly identified the scandal over Health Secretary Michael Matheson’s expenses had cut through from the Holyrood bubble into the public consciousness. And, having done so, he decided not to let the matter drop.
It is not unreasonable to suggest we might not know the full truth about Matheson’s claim for £11,000 of data, run up on his Holyrood-provided iPad on a family holiday in Morocco last New Year if Ross had not used parliamentary time to pursue the matter, relentlessly. When details of the Health Secretary’s extraordinary expenses claim first became public, he and First Minister Humza Yousaf adopted a nothing-to-see-here approach.
Both men insisted Matheson had incurred the costs entirely in the course of carrying out his duties as a constituency MSP. We now know, of course, that this was not the case and that – according to the Health Secretary’s current version of events – his teenage sons ran up the charges streaming football matches.
Scottish Tories the ‘defenders of the Union’
Ross, by refusing to accept repeated attempts by Yousaf to declare the matter closed, has unpicked a tapestry of dishonesty and doublespeak. We know that Yousaf now stands firmly behind a Health Secretary who was willing to mislead voters about his expenses (after Matheson had learned of his sons’ involvement, he told journalists that there had been no such personal use of his iPad) and we may use this knowledge in order to judge the fitness of both men for office.
But, although the Scottish Tory leader has played a leading role in uncovering the facts of this matter, I’m not at all sure it’ll benefit him politically. In the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, Ruth Davidson – then leading the Conservatives in Scotland – recognised that there was a space in our politics for a party firmly opposed to a second constitutional vote.
While Labour tried to ride two horses, with some senior figures hinting that they might be willing to back a Yes vote in future, the Tory leader wisely exploited deep division on the issue to set her party up as defenders of the Union. This was smart politics and it paid off. The Tories – once considered a fully spent force in Scotland – passed Labour in the polls to become the second-largest party in the country.
A party on the slide
Times have changed. The prospect of a second referendum has faded, Labour – under Sir Keir Starmer – is on course to win the next general election, and years of Tory chaos at Westminster have exposed the party in Scotland to considerable collateral damage. Ross now leads a party on the slide and faces the inevitability of the Tories falling into third place at the next Holyrood election.
We can expect Ross to continue to pursue the matter of Matheson’s expenses in the days to come. A meaningless “investigation” by the parliament’s corporate body – the cross-party group that oversees Holyrood’s political business – is unlikely to tell us anything we do not know.
But even if Douglas Ross succeeds in bringing down Michael Matheson, there will be no reward. Leading the Scottish Tories right now is the very definition of a thankless task.
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