Ian Swanson: Divided Tories must get devolution stance right

Have your say

SHE has been less than 18 months in the job, but as the Scottish Tories gather for their annual conference, leader Ruth Davidson finds herself under pressure.

Her performances at First Minister’s Questions have been criticised and there have been mutterings about a lack of political judgement. Party figures have been quoted saying privately that the “jury is still out” and complaining the party is “not making progress”.

But the issue which is causing most difficulty for Ms Davidson is her change of stance on more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

During the leadership campaign in 2011, she famously declared that the extra powers in the Scotland Act were “a line in the sand”. It was a clear message, differentiating her own position from that of rival Murdo Fraser, who advocated further devolution to Holyrood. It helped win her the support of many traditional Tories and was seen as a crucial factor in her victory.

But just a few months later, rather unhelpfully for Ms Davidson, Prime Minister David Cameron came up to Edinburgh and said he was willing to consider more powers if Scots voted No to independence.

A rethink of Ms Davidson’s stance was clearly required. Earlier this year, she made a series of speeches, telling the faithful that “once the threat of separation has receded, we can take a serious and considered look at a new spread of responsibilities within the UK”. And in March she announced a commission under Lord Strathclyde to look at further devolution.

But former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth has branded the move “a suicide mission” and “raising the white flag”. He said: “I find Ruth Davidson’s volte-face on this incomprehensible.”

Lord Forsyth’s comments are probably the most damaging to Ms Davidson. One insider says: ”His endorsement is definitely part of the reason she won. It convinced many of the old guard that she was the one to vote for. But the last thing they want is more powers for this place, so they are very unhappy with Ruth for changing her stance.”

In contrast, erstwhile rival Mr Fraser has praised Ms Davidson for her “leadership and courage” in making the policy switch.

Mr Fraser seized on the results of an opinion poll last month which showed the Tories up three points to 16 per cent support. “We may at last be seeing glimmers of hope for the Scottish centre-right,” he suggested.

But his claim that the U-turn puts the Tories “on the front foot in terms of the devolution debate” may be going a little far. Indeed, the deep divide in the party on the issue acts more as a reminder of the gulf which seems to exist between the Tories and the majority of the Scottish public.

And as if to confirm that distance, the party has not included a debate on more powers on its agenda for this weekend’s conference. Instead, the Tories’ hottest topic will only feature at two fringe meetings.

The official line is Ms Davidson does not want to “tie Lord Strathclyde’s hands” by having a debate before his panel has published its conclusions. Others might think that hearing the views of party members would help inform those conclusions.

Former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was on television earlier this week, recalling a Scottish Tory conference in the 1960s. “I used to like going,” he said. “But I always felt they were 30 or 40 years out of date.” Would he feel the same if he turned up in Stirling tomorrow?