In the war of words, Boris Johnson was upstaged and out of ideas

18 March 2022, 19:44

Boris Johnson addresses Scottish Tory Party conference
Boris Johnson addresses Scottish Tory Party conference. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

For want of a voice, the Scottish Tory leader was lost. For want of a dentist, his replacement almost lost his teeth on stage.

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For want of anything new to say, Boris Johnson's speech was lost in the wake of an emotional outpouring of anger and gratitude by a young Ukrainian Scot desperate about the war which has taken hold of her country.

To suggest the Prime Minister was upstaged by Zhenya Dove, in her traditional Ukrainian flower head-dress, is putting it mildy.

Her descriptions of growing up in Ukraine under a Communist regime - where having a can of Fanta was about the only highlight and when it was emptied it would be filled with water again and again to pretend to be western - and looking in admiration at the lives or those in free, democratic countries, and now in despair as her homeland is torn asunder by Vladimir Putin... well the whole thing brought the Scottish Tory conference to its feet.

For Boris Johnson they managed to at least keep clapping till he left the stage.

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But at least he was there. He showed up. In person. His Chancellor sent a video message which lasted just two minutes and ten seconds and said nothing about the cost of living crisis facing Scots. Little wonder it was described as "insulting" by an SNP MSP.

And a few weeks ago the idea that the PM would attend would have generated more laughter than his quips about Ian Blackford's penchant for purchasing waistcoats.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, had said he should go from Downing Street as a result of the partygate scandal. All his MSPs lined up behind him to condemn Boris Johnson.

Yet the war in Ukraine has seen those icy relations thaw considerably - so much so that Douglas Ross has recanted and withdrawn his letter demanding resignation from the 1922 committee. The pair even shook hands on the stage of the cavernous P&J conference centre (though notably Ross did not join in with the merriment and clapping at Johnson's jokes as much as Scottish Secretary of State Alister Jack).

Read more: 'I did not clap': Former FT Editor reveals moment Putin played 'Chopsticks' on piano

Ross even managed to speak to thank Zhenya and welcome Boris. He had missed First Ministers Questions and a media round of pre-conference interviews earlier in the week because he'd lost his voice - cue much scepticism - and his place was taken in those interviews by former MP and now MSP Stephen Kerr.

Just an hour or so before the Prime Minister's speech, Kerr was regaling the rather sparse audience about the state of Scottish education when disaster struck. A front crown on a tooth seemed to come loose. "This may be my Theresa May moment" he quipped, carrying on gainfully. All he now wants from Rishi Sunak is a new front tooth in the budget next week.

Of course the Tory faithful wanted to hear the Prime Minister but there was a certain couldn't care less feeling abroad.

He worked hard to win them over - his focus on the war, on energy, levelling up, on saying no to a second independence referendum. But even that unionist red meat fell a little flat.

Read more: 'Boris is the best thing that's happened to the UK in a generation', says Lord Cruddas

And there was no mention of the cost of living crisis faced by millions of people who face a huge hit to their incomes in the coming months thanks to soaring gas prices, food prices, and the expected National Insurance hike.

Scottish Tories know this is the major issue that, Ukraine war aside, is in the minds of voters as the head to the polls in council elections. There was nothing new to tell them.

For want of a policy which will put money into families' pockets, then the Scottish Tories could well be lost this May.