Richard Holden and Douglas Ross compound the Conservatives’ election woes

The below content first appeared in’s Politics@Lunch newsletter, sign-up for free here and never miss this essential election briefing.

Another day, another Conservative election calamity: just in case you thought Rishi Sunak’s re-election bid couldn’t get any more hectic, Douglas Ross announced his intention to resign as leader of the Scottish Tories this morning. More on the story here.

In a statement, Ross insisted it was no longer “feasible” to continue as leader and that he will make way for a successor once the general election campaign ends.

The announcement came mere days after Ross sensationally U-turned on his pledge not to stand as an MP this election in an “emergency” press conference. In 2021, Ross became the first (of many) Conservative MPs to declare they would not stand at the coming general election, so he could dedicate more time to his duties as an MSP in Holyrood. Ross, who also works as a football linesman, had been under constant fire for his one-foot-in-each-parliament approach — both from Scottish Labour and the SNP.

Last week, however, Ross announced he would be standing in the new constituency of Aberdeenshire North and Moray East — which contains just 26 per cent of his old Moray seat after recent boundary changes. It was an immensely controversial move, and came just hours after the deselection of presumed candidate David Duguid on the grounds of ill health. Duguid, whose old Banff and Buchan seat comprises 78.8 per cent of the new constituency, had said he planned to run — only to be barred by CCHQ.

The furious backlash to Ross’ manoeuvring culminated in stories this weekend about the Scottish Tory leader’s Westminster expenses. The reports appear to have arisen from his own colleagues’ briefing. And so Ross goes.

But the Scottish Tory chief isn’t the only senior politician paying the price for an apparent “chicken run”. On Sunday, a Conservative aide was forced to step in as party chairman Richard Holden faced a barrage of questions over his selection in the safe seat of Basildon and Billericay.

Holden is the former MP for North West Durham (300 miles away from Basildon) and claimed earlier this year, in a now-infamous interview, that he was “bloody loyal” to his patch.

In fairness, North West Durham no longer exists due to recent boundary changes. Holden’s former fiefdom has been split four ways between the new constituencies of Blaydon and Consett (48.8 per cent of North West Durham), Bishop Auckland (26.7 per cent), City of Durham (16.1 per cent) and North Durham (8.4 per cent).

But rather than challenge for one of these marginal “Red Wall” seats, Holden foisted himself onto Basildon and Billericay last week. The constituency’s most recent MP, John Baron, won a majority of more than 20,000 in 2019; one can only wonder what first attracted Holden to such a safe area.

In the end, Holden was picked as Basildon’s candidate after local activists whittled their options down from a CCHQ-imposed shortlist of *checks notes* one. (Holden, of course, being CCHQ’s head honcho).

As you might expect, the Tory chairman’s calculated chicken run has sparked deep consternation among both local and national Conservatives.

A member of Holden’s new local association told the BBC last week that his selection was a “slap in the face” for members; while one Tory candidate told Sky News yesterday that Holden is a “disgrace to the Conservative Party”. Ultimately, with so many senior Conservatives facing defeat at the coming election, in part, because of CCHQ mismanagement — many view Holden’s selection as an egregious affront.

This logic, however, may actually explain the Conservative chairman’s decision to parachute into Basildon. Given many big-name Tories are tied down in their marginal constituencies this election, Holden’s new safe seat should have enabled him to focus on the national campaign and media work.

But this apparent calculation has disastrously backfired — certainly, if Holden’s car crash interview yesterday is anything to go by.

The interview, seemingly requested by CCHQ, was abruptly terminated by Holden’s handlers after veteran Sky News journalist Jon Craig strayed from their preferred subject: Labour’s policy to tax private school fees and comments made by shadow minister Emily Thornberry. Craig, understandably, wanted to talk about Holden’s chicken run.

“This interview is about Emily Thornberry’s comments today”, Holden eventually rebutted, prompting an aide to step in. The faceless handler cited an alleged “agreement” about the line of questioning; “No, nobody agreed!… Absolutely not”, Craig blasted back.

Fireworks aside, this episode points to a deep malaise at the heart of the Conservative campaign. With Holden tainted by his chicken run (the likely subject of any media interview he faces over the coming weeks), and so many senior Conservatives holed up in their constituencies, who is left to man the frontline of the national campaign?

You can pretty much rule Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch out — they are reportedly distrusted by Sunak’s inner circle. Certainly, any existing cynicism is unlikely to have been alleviated by The Times’ front page splash on Saturday, which read: “Mordaunt hits out at ‘completely wrong’ PM”. (The commons leader had stood in for Sunak at the debate on Friday evening).

That leaves a slew of Sunak lackeys, individuals like Laura Trott, Victoria Atkins, Claire Coutinho, Mel Stride and Mark Harper — regulars on the media, but spokespeople who have yet to set the race alight.

Douglas Ross’ deferred departure as Scottish Conservative leader can be viewed along these lines too. Following Duguid’s unseemly ouster, Ross has been damaged beyond repair by his selection as the parliamentary candidate for Aberdeenshire North and Moray East. In Ross’ wake then, who can now reasonably step up to front the campaign in Scotland, where the Conservatives are defending 7 seats?

The dilemma is just another sign that the Conservative Party’s election campaign is, well, not going according to plan: and it comes as Rishi Sunak, freshly emerged from his bunker after 48 hours of silence, was forced to deny this morning that he considered quitting after his D-Day debacle.

“I just hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me”, the PM said today. It’s the latest low for a flailing campaign.

Subscribe to Politics@Lunch

Lunchtime briefing

Reform UK fields candidates in 96% of seats, as the Greens stand almost everywhere

Lib Dem manifesto pledges to take UK back into EU single market

Lunchtime soundbite

‘We are skint. And it is getting worse’

—  Speaking at a press conference in central London, Nigel Farage says the UK is “skint”. It came as the Reform leader reiterated his party’s pledge to increase the income tax threshold to £20,000.

Now try this…

Infighting on the beaches: behind the scenes of the D-Day debacle
The TimesTim Shipman writes that Sunak’s early return from the commemorations may be the defining mistake of the election campaign. (Paywall)

“I want to win everywhere”: Keir Starmer sets out scale of Labour ambitions

The Guardian speaks to the Labour leader.

It is no good trying to “unite the right” until we have answered the crucial question – around what?
ConservativeHome’s Henry Hill writes.

On this day in 2022:

£4bn ‘unusable’ PPE to be burnt ‘for power’ as modern slavery probe ongoing

Subscribe to Politics@Lunch