Nicola Sturgeon could be gone as Scotland’s First Minister in weeks over the Alex Salmond affair, the Scottish Conservative leader has suggested.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Douglas Ross said the Sturgeon-Salmond saga had brought “sleaze and scandal to the heart of Scottish politics”.
At the centre of the row is whether Ms Sturgeon lied to the Scottish Parliament about what she knew, a potential breach of the ministerial code. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Watch: Nicola Sturgeon broke ministerial code, Salmond tells inquiry - but doesn't call for her to resign
Mr Ross said if the allegation is proved true Ms Sturgeon should “absolutely” resign, and even hinted it was possible she could go before the Holyrood elections in May.
“We have lost first ministers through resignations here in Scotland for far less than what Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of,” he said.
Asked if Ms Sturgeon could be gone by Christmas, he said: “I think there is a lot to come not just this year but in the next few weeks that would really threaten her as the head of the SNP and as First Minister. And that’s before we even get into the election campaign.”
Mr Ross, the Tory MP from Moray who became Scottish party leader last August, was speaking on Thursday, one day before Mr Salmond gave evidence in Holyrood.
Mr Ross said once the Scottish parliamentary committee probing the row had completed its work the UK civil service should also look into what happened.
“Leslie Evans has to be answerable for her conduct and the questions that will arise from the Scottish Parliament committee,” Mr Ross told The Telegraph.
“So I think it's right that we wait for that committee to look at it. But ultimately, the overall management of the civil service in Scotland is part of the UK-wide civil service.
“And I believe the UK-wide civil service has to look at what's happening in Scotland and the behaviour of the civil servants and how that compares to their own code of conduct.”
Away from the immediate headlines of the SNP’s civil war is the question of the Union, with polls now consistently showing Scottish voters support independence.
With calls ramping up for a second independence referendum in Scotland and Brexit triggering new tensions in Northern Ireland over its border arrangements, some Unionists are gloomy about the UK’s future.
Mr Ross is not among them. Asked if the Union will still be intact in 100 years with all four nations together – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – he said categorically “yes”.
Asked how he could be so confident, Mr Ross replied: “Well, because it’s come through a lot in several hundred years before now and it has weathered some pretty major storms.
“It is that strength of four nations coming together and combining to do far more together than they ever could do as one single nation alone that has got us through some of the most difficult and challenging times in our history.”
Mr Ross is insistent that Boris Johnson will not agree to a second independence referendum before the next UK election in 2024, doubling down on Number 10’s stance on the issue. Calls for another vote will ramp up in May if the SNP wins a majority of seats in the Holyrood elections, as is expected.
But Mr Ross insists that outcome is not a done deal. Asked what he would tell a gambler putting down cash on an SNP majority, he responded: “I'd say don't bet on that, don't waste your money on that outcome.”
Should the SNP win their Holyrood majority but be denied a second referendum, it is possible they would unilaterally call their own independence vote - a move which is legally dubious. What then? Mr Ross was firm: "I’ve said Scottish Conservatives would absolutely boycott it. I’d take no part in some illegal, wildcat referendum that would do nothing but create more uncertainty for individuals, families and businesses.
"And it's really not where the priority of people in Scotland is right now when we're trying to get through this pandemic and then rebuild after coronavirus.
"We need to focus on the powers that Scotland currently has and using them to the best of our ability, rather than having this reckless referendum that the SNP seem determined to hold as soon as possible."
Mr Ross, aged 38 and just six months into party leadership, admitted at times it has been hard to cut through with the pandemic dominating people’s lives and the headlines.
His relationship with Mr Johnson has also been in the spotlight, with Mr Ross resigning as a minister in the Scotland Office after news about then Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings’s car trip north during lockdown emerged.
Mr Ross said the Prime Minister spent half an hour on the phone with him the night before his resignation was announced, attempting to convince him to stay. It did not work, but he claims they finished the call on "very agreeable terms".
“Since then, you know, we've agreed and we’ve disagreed but we still maintain a good relationship. I’m speaking with him on Tuesday next week. We text back and forth,” said Mr Ross, who hopes to return to Holyrood in May.
“He knows I'll challenge the UK Government if I don’t think it's doing the right thing for Scotland and I'll back the UK Government when I think it's got it right for Scotland.”
Away from the cut and thrust of Scottish politics, Mr Ross still continues his part-time job as a professional linsenam in the Scottish football leagues.
He has appeared in about a dozen games since becoming the Scottish Tory leader, though is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury picked up during the Aberdeen versus Rangers match.
Mr Ross said he has not got any crowd abuse since his new job given Covid-19 means there are no fans in stadiums, but is quick to add he wants supporters back as soon as it is safe to do so.
Debate remains on-going in Scotland about the strategy the pro-UK campaign, called Better Together, used to win the referendum in 2014. The campaign lent in hard on the economic consequences of independence but was accused by opponents of “sacre-mongering”.
In the end the campaign proved a success. Scottish independence was defeated, for then at least, with 55 per cent of Scots voting to stay in the UK and 45 per cent voting to leave.
Mr Ross said he does believe the pro-UK campaign in 2014 was too “negative”.
It is important to make the financial realities of separation clear, he argued looking forward, but also use more positive ways to show how Scotland benefits from being in the UK today.