Brian Monteith: Fraser sails for stormy waters

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Love them or hate them, the Scottish Conservatives have come to a very important juncture in their history that will determine their future – and it’s all thanks to their aspiring new captain, Murdo Fraser.

Following this May’s especially dreadful election result Annabel Goldie had little option but to resign and allow someone else to try and save Scotland’s oldest political party. The Tory ship was all at sea after hitting the nationalist iceberg and was taking water badly.

If Goldie had had any sense she would have taken notice of the similarly dreadful general election result the year before and allowed a new course to be chartered with someone else at the helm; but debate and discussion was suppressed at the Captain’s table and the opportunity was passed by.

So the day is now approaching when the party gets to vote for its new leader – but is it beyond saving, as the leading contender Murdo Fraser says? Is it really a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic and would transferring to his new ship of state offer a better hope?

Long before I left the Conservatives I had come to the conclusion that it had lost the confidence of the Scottish people in its reluctance to argue for Scotland’s interests within the United Kingdom, that it was perceived (albeit unfairly) as subservient to leaders in London and that it would not grasp the nettle of Holyrood being unaccountable for spending beyond its means.

I talked at party conferences in Perth, Blackpool and Bournemouth and had articles published in Scottish and British journals arguing for radical change that would make the Scottish Conservatives independent of the UK party so that it could reconnect with the Scottish people. I found many supporters in the English Conservatives sympathetic to my case but in Scotland I became a pariah for daring to rock the boat by challenging the cosy consensus.

I was not the first to propose these ideas; people such as Allan Massie, Arthur Bell, Struan Stevenson and Michael Fry had all made similar efforts before me and all had been lashed or had their rations cut as thanks for their audacity.

After a loyal and dutiful six years as deputy to Admiral Goldie, Murdo Fraser has now decided it is the right time to issue an SOS. He could have been a shoe-in for leader and then tried to make the changes later, but by his decision to be honest about his party’s predicament and to warn the membership of the hard choices it faces he has shown a leadership capacity not displayed before nevertheless it should be welcomed.

My only fear is that the party rank and file may not share his courage or his foresight and stay on board grasping at straws as they slowly slip under.Despite his despondent and depressing analysis he has at least offered a positive vision of what lies over the horizon and has a plan that offers the hope of getting there. At no point has he attacked his opponents or his predecessors, instead he has laid the keel for a ship that will welcome new passengers as well as make the existing ones comfortable. He deserves a fair wind.

The same cannot be said for his opponents, Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson, both of whom have offered nothing but confusion and hot air, neither of which will turn the screws or repair the failing bulkheads.

Carlaw decided to go on the attack by claiming the past leadership (morse code for McLetchie, Goldie and Fraser) had appeased Alex Salmond and that he would be different. Yesterday he put his merry little tugboat straight into reverse and crashed into the dock when he announced he wanted Tories to support the SNP’s minimum pricing of alcohol. If that was not appeasement I don’t know what is – and this from the former Tory health spokesman that helped craft the policy he now wants to abandon. If Carlaw is to become leader he had better have a more steady hand on the tiller than this.

Davidson had long been trailed as the moderniser who would find favour with David Cameron’s metropolitan dinner-party types, although why this would make her attractive to the Scottish voter has never been explained. Indeed her previous performance in a Glasgow North parliamentary by-election when she just managed 0.3% more votes than the BNP candidate suggests she still has to find resonance with everyday folk.

Having had the moderniser mantle taken off her by Fraser (nobody can now advocate more change than he) she has bizarrely become the arch- reactionary candidate attracting the support of past captains that are still fighting past naval battles on their dining tables. It only needs the Great Michael (Forsyth) to declare for Davidson and her moderniser status will be over.

Davidson’s suggestion that Fraser would have to think carefully about his future (morse code for leave the party) were his thoughtful proposal defeated revealed a partisan bitterness that would leave the Tories as a narrow sect.

This Tory squall is just the calm before the storm. Reach for the lifebelts, there will be more Tories shouting Save Our Souls before the month is out.