IT’S a bold pitch for a would-be leader: “Vote for me and I’ll abolish the party.” Murdo Fraser has decided that scrapping the Scottish Conservatives and setting up a new centre-right party is the only way to escape the toxic image that goes all the way back to Margaret Thatcher.
He insists the new party – as yet unnamed – would not be “just the same old Tories” but would attract wider support, make its own policies and not be afraid to take have differences with a UK Conservative government.
His plan will strike a chord with many activists fed up with the party’s poor performances election after election and exasperated at the lack of serious debate within the party about the way forward. Mr Fraser won loud applause at his launch yesterday when he said the new party would encourage genuine policy debate at conferences “and not before time”.
But his new party plan has also been roundly denounced. The last Tory Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, called it “ludicrous” and leadership rival Ruth Davidson suggested it was playing into the SNP’s hands. The party is now seriously divided about its own future.
Of course, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party only came into being in 1965. Up until then, it had been just the Unionist Party, though its MPs sat with the English Conservatives. And it was as the Unionists that the party reached its peak, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote and 36 out of the 72 Scottish seats in the 1955 general election. Compare that with last year’s Westminster election when it won just 16.7 per cent and a single solitary seat.
As former Edinburgh Pentlands MP and ex-Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind remarks: “The use of the title Conservative in Scotland has been relatively recent and not entirely beneficial.”
Sir Malcolm says he admires Mr Fraser’s courage in coming forward with such a radical plan. “He is already the front-runner and he could easily have not said this and waited until he was safely elected, but that would have been dishonest. He has said ‘This is what I want to do, if you don’t like it don’t vote for me’. That is an impressive show of true leadership qualities.”
But will it win him the contest, in which he is pitted against new Glasgow MSP and former radio journalist Ms Davidson and Tory transport spokesman and former car dealer Jackson Carlaw?
To win, Mr Fraser faces the hurdle of persuading the membership – estimated at 8500, many of them elderly, lifelong traditional Tories – that the time has come to change into a new party.
An appeal to the Tories’ 1950s heyday as the Unionist Party might help. But those were different times – the SNP hardly existed, the Lib Dems were very small, Scotland and the rest of the UK effectively had a two-party system.
Lothians Tory MSP Gavin Brown has signed up to Mr Farser’s idea. “Murdo’s vision is bold but necessary. After all, you cannot cross a chasm in two jumps. This gives us a chance for a fresh start. I believe there is a vital need for a progressive centre-right party with a strong Scottish identity.”
Edinburgh Tory leader Councillor Jeremy Balfour is also backing Mr Fraser. “It is not just about the name it is about what we offer, who we are and what our policies are. People do have negative connotations, rightly or wrongly, with the Scottish Conservatives’ name and I think we do need to be grown up enough to address that.”
But Iain McGill, Conservative candidate in last month’s City Centre ward by-election for Edinburgh City Council – which he nearly won – does not believe a new party is needed. “What we need is for our party to be articulating much better what the members’ views are – we need to say we are for a small state, lower taxes and the lightest possible touch from government.
“People do bring up the Thatcher legacy, but people like me and Ruth Davidson were schoolchildren when Lady Thatcher left office.”
There is a danger that Mr Fraser’s surprise proposal and the hostile reaction from certain quarters will turn the leadership contest into a civil war within the party. Mr Fraser went out of his way to stress there was no place for two centre-right parties in Scotland. “Win or lose, there will be no split – we either jump together or we don’t jump at all.”
But the views expressed already make it difficult for the two sides to stay together. How could Mr Fraser and his supporters remain in a party which he has branded “failing” and “not fit for purpose”? And how could his critics be part of a new party they have condemned as “ludicrous”?