The fate of the Scottish Tories: survive and die, or die and survive?

Nik Darlington 9.03am

The contest they’re calling Tory Idol draws to a close this afternoon. The 8,500 Scottish Conservative and Unionist party members have been balloted by post over recent weeks for the new leader of that party - or, if one of the candidates has his way, an entirely new party.

Murdo Fraser, the Mid Scotland & Fife MSP and current deputy leader, has been the man making the running ever since he announced his intention to disband the “toxic” party and replace it with a “new and stronger party for Scotland, a new belief in devolution, a new approach to policymaking, a new name”. Mr Fraser’s idea has been widely canned by party grandees such as Lord Forsyth and by our very own Craig Barrett, on these pages, as “entirely cosmetic”.

However, a breakaway Scottish Tories has been tacitly welcomed by Downing Street, and leading Conservatives like Francis Maude and Sir Malcolm Rifkind have voiced their support. Mr Fraser also has the backing of the majority of Tory MSPs and many prospective Holyrood candidates and councillors, though there are suspicions that several MSPs are regretting having played their hand too early.

That is partly a result of Murdo Fraser’s bold plans unravelling at the seams, and partly a result of the determined surge of the young Ruth Davidson, only 32 and already a list MSP in fiercely anti-Tory Glasgow. Craig has written persuasively in support of Ms Davidson, because she is a winner and backed by “proven winners” such as John Lamont (an early contributor to these pages) and John Scott, both successful constituency MSPs. Craig pointed out that as much as 10 per cent of the Scottish Conservative membership could reside in Mr Lamont’s Roxburgh, Berwickshire & Ettrick constituency, which if they follow their respected representative’s lead hands a big advantage to Ms Davidson.

Jackson Carlaw’s campaign has been regrettably beset by illness. Although now lacking an appendix, the veteran party list MSP has put a considerable amount of heart into the contest. His performance at the Manchester party conference hustings was narrow in reach but stirringly passionate. Mr Carlaw has a vision for his party, yet it is too reliant on a rear-view mirror. The party may not have to change as drastically as Mr Fraser wants it to, but it has to change more drastically than Mr Carlaw can bring himself to.

A vote for Margaret Mitchell, wrote Allan Massie in The Scotsman, “would be like an expression of Jacobitism after Culloden, pure sentimentality”. As it might, with Mrs Mitchell being the only candidate to come across as opposed to the Scotland Act - and by extension the advances that legislation could afford for Scotland, which I have written about elsewhere. She may have turned up to the Manchester hustings with the biggest banner, but such cocksure ensigns will not translate into success for the Central Scotland MSP.

Rumours in The Herald last night reckon that turnout could be as low as 55 per cent, meaning the contest could be decided by as few as 5,000 voters. This is unexpected and if true something of a shame, given the interest that ‘Tory Idol’ has generated not just in Scotland but across the UK, where a lot of the Scottish Tory diaspora resides.

The TRG has allotted Scotland as the theme of 2011, and this blog devoted its first week to Scottish affairs. The former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wrote about Scotland and the AV referendum, which feels an age ago now, and I made my overoptimistically rash prediction about Scottish rugby, the scars of Six Nations failure still sore!

In those early days there was an article by James Wallis, titled ‘Where is the Conservative party’s distinctive vision for Scotland?’ James said:

"The Scottish Conservatives must have a strong, charismatic and independent leader to take a positively and distinctively Scottish vision both to the electorate and the party, and to place far greater emphasis on Holyrood as the centre of gravity for Scottish politics."

The two frontrunners, Murdo Fraser and Ruth Davidson, both offer this distinctively Scottish vision. In their own ways, they offer a break with the past that Mrs Mitchell and Mr Carlaw cannot.

With the votes in and being counted, predictions now might be worthless. The latest odds I’ve seen put Ruth Davidson odds-on in front, but I am not so sure. The potentially low turnout could aid Murdo Fraser’s campaign, which is more polarising yet possibly more motivated.

I am not convinced that Mr Fraser’s solution is the right one. However, come roughly 5 o’ clock this evening, I reckon it is a solution that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party will have to come to terms with.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

If the Scottish Tories want to win, they should choose Ruth Davidson

Craig Barrett 10.59am

Running for the bus the other day, my iPod shuffled on to the sound of “Hearthammer” by folk-rock band Runrig. As a bit of a political anorak, I thought of Runrig’s keyboard player, Peter Wishart, who is the MP for Perth and North Perthsire, formerly Tayside North.

It got me thinking. I remember spending a day campaigning in Tayside North in early 1997, working alongside the redoubtable Bill Walker in his bid for re-election. He thought boundary changes would impact his 4,000 majority but that he would be safe. Looking around that beautiful part of Perthshire, accompanied by an army of canvassers brimming with confidence, it was hard to disagree. Surely this area of all areas, which was represented not so long ago by a Conservative Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, would withstand the anti-Tory tide?

Bill Walker fell to the SNP challenger on an 8 per cent swing.

I tell this tale because that part of Scotland has remained SNP ever since, despite the efforts of one Murdo Fraser, who fought for the seat in the Westminster election in 2001 and the Holyrood elections of 1999, 2003, 2007 and (in its new guise of Perthshire North) in 2011. As Mr Fraser is bidding to be leader of ‘the Party’ in Scotland, his electoral record is important and unfortunately, it makes for unpleasant reading.

It is ironic (and oft commented) that the Scottish Tories have only held on in Holyrood by virtue of the devolution and proportional representation they so vehemently opposed. The recurrent failure to win constituencies and maintain list votes is the biggest headache for ‘the Party’. Murdo Fraser’s proposed medicine is separatism.

I disagree. I have written before about why this could be disastrous. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist party desperately needs an engine overhaul, not new bodywork.

It lacks funds and has a central office function that seems inexperienced and incompetent. It needs the support of the UK-wide party to provide cash and campaigning expertise. Eric Pickles built a formidable campaigning team - they should be deployed north of the border. Elections to Westminster and Holyrood are staggered so it would all go towards building experience and putting proven tactics to good use over the electoral cycles. Other parties are good at this, whereas the Tories tend only to move into top gear once every four years.

If you want to change the image, change the faces of the MSPs. It was a big disappointment to see all the existing MSPs first-ranked for the 2011 listings. The “same old Tories” seemed an apposite phrase, with arguably the emphasis firmly on “old”.

As a consequence, along with the declining list vote, the only new Tory face elected to Holyrood was Ruth Davidson, a list MSP for Glasgow. She is 32-years-old, a Sunday School teacher, and a former TA officer. It is too early to judge her electoral record, although standing in Glasgow is a hard task for any Tory. The days when Glasgow Kelvin could be relied upon to be rock-solid blue are long gone.

But the effect of Mr Fraser’s attempt to separate ‘the Party’ implies that ‘the Party’ cannot win whilst standing as the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. Certainly, Mr Fraser seems incapable of winning in the area I visited in 1997, taking a lower share of the vote every time his name goes on to the ballot paper.

Yet ‘the Party’ truly can win as Tories. Step forward John Lamont and the mighty campaign team that he has built around him in the Borders. I am informed that something in the region of 10 per cent of the Scottish Conservative membership is based in his Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency. If true, it is not only astonishing but a demonstration of how momentum can gather behind sustained success.

Mr Lamont won Roxburgh and Bewickshire in 2007 with an 11 per cent increase in the vote - this in an area of Scotland that hadn’t elected a Tory since 1964. He took the successor seat (the addition of Ettrick) in 2011 gaining another 6 per cent, in the process relegating the former Lib Dem MSP into a woeful third place despite in increase in the SNP’s share.

John Scott MSP has held Ayr as a constituency member since 2000; Alex Fergusson MSP has been member for Galloway and West Dumfries since 2003, despite a term as Presiding Officer; David McLetchie managed to sit as the MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands for eight years, only falling to the SNP’s surprising surge into Edinburgh.

To change the party’s name, to become ‘the Party’ that Murdo Fraser wants to lead, leaves the Conservatives open to the charge of trying to ditch their identity - the “same old Tories” trying to disguise themselves. The party runs the risk of making an unprincipled bid for power.

I remain unconvinced that changing the party’s name is truly the way forward, whilst the party continues to retain all those members who have become too comfortable with their list seats to be interested enough in campaigning. Murdo Fraser’s plan is entirely cosmetic and fails to grasp the party’s structural problems.

John Scott and John Lamont are both backing Ruth Davidson rather than Murdo Fraser. Those proven winners are the people who I trust to identify another winner and that is why I shall be casting my vote in Scotland for Ruth Davidson.

Follow Craig on Twitter @MrSteedUK