Scottish Tory conference: Past, present and future

David Mundell
Image caption David Mundell made the opening speech at the Tory Party conference in Edinburgh

Coalition was much on the mind of David Mundell as he opened the Scottish Conservative conference in Edinburgh today. Not, you understand, for his own party in the future.

No, no, the Tories, it seems, will sweep to majority power in the House of Commons, carried through the streets of SW1 by cheering crowds: eager voters, openly weeping with joy, clutching their enthusiastic, gap-toothed offspring.

Mr Mundell had two points to make about coalition. One framed by a past election, one the possible product of the contest in May. What you might call the Ghost of Easter Past and that of Easter Yet to Come.

Turning to past events, Mr Mundell reminded his audience that he had served for years as deputy in the Scotland Office to successive Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State. (There have been three.)

Mr Mundell had not come, he said, to condemn his coalition chums. Rather, he said, the conference should thank them. A wave of vague puzzlement swept the hall. What was that? What did he say? Should we rush the stage now?

Sensing his peril, Mr Mundell moved on swiftly. Gratitude was due to the Lib Dems, he averred, because they had loyally supported the Conservatives "over the economy, welfare and tuition fees".

Was there just a slight pause before he mentioned tuition fees, the topic which has caused the Lib Dems persistent pain? I think there was, as if the Minister sought to amplify the agony.

Then the afterwords. The Tory conference should thank the Lib Dems, he said, because "their voters will not". And he meant it to sting. I will not say that the conference erupted in ironic laughter. But there was perhaps a small earthquake, a fractional rumble.

Tory theme

And the coalition Ghost Yet to Come? Mr Mundell had in mind a prospective pact between Labour and the SNP. The Nationalists have today drawn attention to opinion polling which, they say, indicates that people in Scotland favour the notion of such an accommodation.

By contrast, the Tories reckon such a prospect will frighten the lieges. Intriguingly, Mr Mundell chose to partner Ed Miliband with Alex Salmond, not Nicola Sturgeon. This is now an established Tory theme. Be careful, Salmond could return alongside Labour.

Perhaps they calculate that such a deal is particularly unwelcome to Tory voters. Perhaps they reckon that Nicola Sturgeon is winning support, notably among women. Whatever, they deliberately choose to postulate Alex Salmond leading coalition talks.

Mr Salmond might reasonably note that his own electoral history is rather more positive of late than the Scots Tories. But no matter. This is the Tory talk.

Mr Mundell spoke of a Rainbow Coalition. Rainbow? Remember the children's programme of that name? David Mundell does. He cast Alex Salmond as Zippy and Ed Balls as Bungle. Laugh? They very nearly did.

The Minister had a further point. That Alex Salmond would be the puppet master, that Labour would not be able to cope with the SNP machine in coalition talks. Again, this is to fit a Tory narrative. Labour say: vote SNP, get Tory. Tories say: vote Labour, get SNP in shared power.

What do you say?


Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Prime Minister David Cameron warned about voting Labour and getting the SNP
Image copyright PA
Image caption Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said there was a danger Ed Miliband would have Alex Salmond as a back street driver

.... and later, almost as if it were co-ordinated, the same themes emerged from speeches by the Prime Minster and Ruth Davidson.

David Cameron talked up the prospect (as he would see it, threat) of a Labour/SNP coalition. And he deliberately demonised Alex Salmond, saying: "Like a horror movie - he's back"

Mr Cameron's wider theme was that Britain required the retention of the current strategy, or "long term economic plan" as it is customarily describe by cabinet ministers.

Ms Davidson offered - for Holyrood customers - the prospect of nursery vouchers and schools enabled to opt out of local authority control. Plus possible tax cuts at Holyrood.

In a shock departure from the line, Ms Davidson posited a political marriage between Ed Miliband - and Nicola Sturgeon. However, she returned to theme by depicting Alex Salmond as a back-seat driver.

Even now, I can imagine Mr Salmond using one of his favourite quotes from Burns: "The mair they talk, I'm kent the better."

And so the Tories departed, their understandably truncated conference over. Their strategy clear: to revive the energy which they experienced during the referendum and to turn it into election votes by summoning up the spirit of the independence offer as a ghoul to deplore.

Will it work? Your call.

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