Scottish Tories square up at party conference


In Manchester for the Tory conference - and there are some fascinating sights to witness.

Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw and Margaret Mitchell The four leadership candidates went head-to-head at the Tory conference

For example, they have a remarkable form of light transit across the city. Runs on rails, overhead power cables. They call it "the trams".

Any possibility that could translate to Scotland?

And, politically, there was an intriguing event at lunchtime as the four contenders for the Scottish Conservative leadership sought to persuade and cajole.

One of the four, Margaret Mitchell, stressed more than once that they were not participating in a "beauty contest" - which caused the others to grin uncomfortably and fix their hair.

So, if not a pageant of pulchritude, what is this contest?

Self-evidently, an election, a keenly contested election. But, as today's hustings confirmed, this is also a quasi-referendum: on the very future of the party in Scotland.

That is because one of the candidates, Murdo Fraser, has proposed that the current party should transform into an entirely new centre-right outfit.

Every question from the floor focused upon this prospect: supportively, sceptically or antagonistically.

Which is entirely right.

There is little point in the candidates spotlighting the fine detail of housing policy while the party confronts a fundamental choice about the very nature of its existence and its pitch to the electorate in Scotland.

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Murdo Fraser appeared to suggest he had had to bite his tongue at points during the past few years when he noted that he had remained utterly loyal as Annabel Goldie's deputy, despite occasional private differences.”

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The essential case was debated at the Manchester hustings.

Mr Fraser argued the Tories could not get a hearing at all in Scotland - because they were not seen as representing Scottish interests, as having a Scottish identity.

His rivals dissented from this, arguing that improved organisation, enhanced communication and hard work to re-engage with the voters could counter this negative tendency.

Tried all that, says Mr Fraser: didn't work, won't work now. Hence, the fundamental choice that is now presenting itself to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

A referendum, then - but not a straightforward one. A multi-option referendum, if you like, in that there are three candidates who oppose Mr Fraser's plan.

Of those, it is generally presumed that Ruth Davidson is the frontrunner - and she performed well, with light touches of self-deprecating humour.

But Jackson Carlaw will have done himself no harm at all with a feisty show, majoring on his experience and dog-whistle appeals to basic Conservative attitudes.

Mr Carlaw argued the Tories risk making themselves look intrinsically foolish by concentrating upon internal strategy and structures while Scotland prepares for a full-blown referendum of another kind: upon independence.

Mr Fraser contested that by arguing that the Tories were going absolutely nowhere as things stood. They must transform or head towards oblivion.

His team believe that, if he wins the election, he will have the momentum - and Westminster compliance - to ensure that he can complete the transition to a new Scottish party which would take the Tory whip in the Commons.

Against that, Ms Davidson pointed to the Conservative party in Wales, which has regained ground.

She argued that a fresh approach, allied to restructured organisation, could repeat that performance in Scotland.

David Mundell Scotland's sole Tory MP David Mundell is not happy about Murdo Fraser's plan

(As an aside, my BBC Wales colleagues tell me that there was warm applause at a Welsh fringe when the Wales Office Minister David Jones criticised the plan to rename and rebrand the party in Scotland.)

Margaret Mitchell characterised herself as the arch-Unionist, opposed to the new tax powers for Holyrood in the Scotland Bill.

In the audience, the Scotland Office Minister David Mundell greeted that with a thin smile.

Other interesting cameo points.

Sections of the audience did not appear to like it when Margaret Mitchell directly spotlighted Ruth Davidson's limited experience. There was sporadic grumbling, although only sporadic.

Murdo Fraser appeared to suggest he had had to bite his tongue at points during the past few years when he noted that he had remained utterly loyal as Annabel Goldie's deputy, despite occasional private differences.

But, of course, this Tory "referendum" will be decided not in Manchester, not at the party hustings around Scotland - but in a postal ballot of the members.

And that will be conducted via the alternative vote.

Party members will rank the candidates in order of preference. The least popular candidate drops out, with their first preference votes reallocated according to second preference.

That process is repeated until an overall winner emerges.

It is generally thought Murdo Fraser, as the experienced, incumbent deputy leader, would have won comfortably - if he had kept quiet about his radical reform thinking.

Team Fraser argue that it is to his credit that he has been frank and upfront about his views on the party - and his proposed solution.

But will he still win when second, third and possibly fourth preferences are redistributed - when, by definition, those votes will initially have gone to candidates who dislike his reform plan?

Can he convince enough switchers to back him?

We will know on 4th November.

Brian Taylor, Political editor, Scotland Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "Mr Fraser argued the Tories could not get a hearing at all in Scotland - because they were not seen as representing Scottish interests, as having a Scottish identity." Quite so.

    Under any name you care to choose, however, the Tories are "going absolutely nowhere", I venture to suggest. A dead parrot is a dead parrot no matter what you call it.

    The Tory Story:

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The Tories have received a decreasing share of votes in every election since they were amalgamated into the English Conservative party forty plus years ago.At that point they had already gone "native" and stopped representing any Scottish interest.The candidates are a lightweight bunch with few redeeming features. Bella,s dreadfull gutter sniping speech showed how low the Tories have slunk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The "slunk" is deliberate. The present Scottish Tory leaders retoric is cheap, nasty and does not represent the way decent politics should be heading. If A.Salmond had used such language, he would have been properly condemmed by the press which give Goldies views a wide and uncritical airing. I hope she disappears from the public stage now. House Of Lords?-Services rendered,but not for us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Foregone conclusion ..Ruth D..simply because she is the most annoying and being annoying and ineffective has been the Scottish Tories only purpose for over a decade

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is the first Independence (thats "Seperation" for Labour
    spin doctors who cannot spell Independence) vote of the
    modern political era in Scotland.

    To be relevant in Scotland the Tory party has to break away
    and become distinctly Scottish, something that all political
    parties will have to do to survive. Continuing with 10% of effort
    and a set of third rate hacks is a losing game.


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