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.
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