Ian Swanson: Tory hopefuls get their chance at conference

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The battle for leadership of the Scottish Tories moves to the UK stage next week. Ian Swanson reports on the grassroots battle already under way in Scotland

FOUR Scottish Tory MSPs will take to a platform in a Manchester hotel next week to tell the faithful how they believe they can turn around the party’s fortunes north of the Border. The battle to succeed Annabel Goldie as leader is the first real contest and debate about future direction that the Scottish Conservatives have had since devolution.

But it looks an increasingly divisive fight, descending into personal attacks

Monday’s hustings, taking place on the fringe of the UK Tory conference, will be the only official occasion where the four hopefuls share a platform. Other party gatherings are hearing the candidates one after the other.

Tory fortunes in Scotland have never recovered since the wipe-out at the 1997 General Election. And the four would-be leaders all have a different take on how to tackle the party’s problems.

Murdo Fraser seized the early initiative with his plan to create a new centre-right party, famously declaring the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was “not fit for purpose” and had no future in its present form. A poll by website Tory Hoose suggests he has a narrow lead with 46 per cent support to Ruth Davidson’s 44 per cent and Jackson Carlaw on 11 per cent. The poll was taken before Margaret Mitchell entered the race.

Ms Davidson, billed as the “new generation” option, was originally expected to be the “change” candidate, but has ended up as the defender of party tradition and history. She says the party can prosper by “sticking together and by marching forward in a spirit of renewed self-belief and confidence”.

Mr Carlaw claims 30 years’ experience at all levels in the party equip him to lead “both a fundamental reform of the party organisation and a recovery of Scottish Conservative electoral fortunes”. Ms Mitchell says she wants to rebuild the party by “listening to the Scottish electorate”.

But Mr Fraser’s plan for a new party remains the hot topic of debate in the contest. Former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, who is backing Ms Davidson, said disbanding the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party would be “the greatest political error since Bonnie Prince Charlie turned back at Derby to face certain defeat”.

At the first hustings, held in Inverness last weekend, Mr Fraser was given a hard time, say insiders. “He answered the questions well,” said one party source. “But people were saying ‘We don’t want to change – we want to be Scottish Conservative and Unionists’.

“Trying to get the most conservative electorate in Western Europe to adopt such a radical policy, I don’t know if it’s going to work. It has scared people.”

Ms Davidson is said to have performed strongly at the hustings. “She speaks well and answers questions well. She got a lot of applause from the audience. But one guy said to her: ‘You sound good, what are your policies?’ Her answer seemed to be ‘What we have now but I’ll work harder’.”

A straw poll at the meeting found Mr Carlaw went down best with the activists who attended. Of 33 people questioned, 19 backed him, nine opted for Ms Davidson, three for Ms Mitchell and just two for Mr Fraser. The source said: “Jackson was very critical of the performance of MSPs and got a big round of applause for his call for a limit on the number of terms list MSPs can serve. A lot of members don’t rate the parliament or the performance of the MSPs.”

Ms Davidson’s camp point out Mr Fraser has been deputy leader for the past ten years and therefore should accept some responsibility for what has happened.

In rejecting claims the Tories are a lost cause in Scotland, they point to Ms Davidson’s campaign manager, MSP John Lamont, as an example of “a Tory who wins”. He did twice win his Holyrood seat first past the post, but what about his bid to get elected to represent the same area at Westminster last year? He lost by 5675 votes.

There result of the contest will be announced on November 4. The 8500 Scots Tory members will rank candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3, 4. And if it is as close as suggested, the outcome will depend on the second choices of those voting for the least popular candidate(s) – the proposed system for UK elections the Tories campaigned against earlier this year.

The Candidates

Margaret Mitchell

CV

Age: 58. List MSP for Central Scotland since 2003.

Former teacher and councillor.

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Right-wing rebel

Pitch

Halt any more transfer of powers to Holyrood by having a referendum on the Scotland Bill

now.

Ruth Davidson

CV

Age: 32. List MSP for Glasgow since May 2011. Former BBC journalist.

Image

New generation.

Pitch

Don’t disband the party. Draw a line in the sand on devolution.

Talk to voters about issues that matter.

Murdo Fraser

CV

Age: 46. List MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife since 2001. Deputy Scottish Tory leader since 2005. Lawyer.

Image

Man with a radical plan.

Pitch

Party has failed,so set up new one. More powerful Holyrood

- but not full fiscal autonomy.

Jackson Carlaw

CV

Age: 52. List MSP for West of Scotland since 2007.

Former car salesman.

Image

Traditional Tory

Pitch

Hold an early independence referendum. Limit the number of times list MSPs can stand for re-election.