Ian Swanson: Powers struggle threatens to undermine Tory stance

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With the Conservatives heading to Troon, Ian Swanson says it’s time the party put its cards on the table

The trip to Troon gives new leader Ruth Davidson a chance to demonstrate her dedication to the cause with appropriate seaside metaphors about turning the Nationalist tide or even a Churchillian determination to fight on the beaches.

Unfortunately for her, it will also serve as a reminder of a comment she made during her leadership campaign, insisting the extra powers contained in the Scotland Bill now going through Westminster represented a “line in the sand”.

She declared: “When the referendum is done, and Scotland and the Union has won the day, let that be an end to it.”

On his visit to Edinburgh last month, though, Prime Minister David Cameron flatly contradicted her, telling his audience he was ready to consider more powers for Holyrood so long as voters first rejected independence.

It’s a point Mr Cameron repeats in his foreword to this weekend’s conference programme: “Once the question of separation has been settled once and for all, I have made it clear that the government would be prepared to consider how the devolution settlement can be further improved.”

So much for Ms Davidson’s claim after winning the leadership contest in November that Mr Cameron was not the party boss north of the Border. She said then: “While David Cameron is my Prime Minister, when he comes to Scotland he is not my boss, we are colleagues.

“I hope very much to work with our Prime Minister, but if he needs a quiet tap on the shoulder, then I’m just the girl to do it.”

Tory members chose Ms Davidson as leader on the basis she was opposed to more powers, while her main challenger, Murdo Fraser, openly supported greater devolution, which he cast as a “new unionism”.

Her victory was seen as a reflection of grassroots feeling, but she has now been overruled by the Prime Minister. One party insider says: “It’s very tricky for her. People who supported her on the basis of her ‘line in the sand’ stance feel she has let them down.”

But Mr Cameron’s refusal to elaborate on what extra powers he would be prepared to consider means his attempt to be seen as open and flexible has failed to impress or satisfy anyone. Impossible as it may seem, it left the Tories in an even worse position in Scotland than they were before.

At the conference tomorrow, Ms Davidson will officially launch Conservative Friends of the Union, a new campaign group to fight for Scotland to remain in the UK. They say anyone from any party can join, but it seems unlikely there’s going to be a queue.

The Tories are the most pro-Union of the parties, but their involvement in any joint campaign against the SNP’s independence proposals risks being counter-productive.

Labour politicians are routinely pressed to say whether or not they would share a platform with Mr Cameron or other senior Tories in order to save the Union. If they answer no, they look petty and partisan; if they say yes, they are declaring themselves ready to go into alliance with the Tories – and the Liberal Democrats’ dire position stands as a terrible warning of what happens to those who go down that road.

Nevertheless, the pro-Union parties do need to get their act together if they are going to fight the SNP’s independence plans. Whether they campaign together or keep their distance, they need to work out their message and get going.

So far, the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been united in their rejection of any second “devo max” or “devo plus” question in the referendum. They insist the key issue is whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom and that has to be settled first, with any proposal on more powers postponed till later.

But with some extension of devolution still showing in the opinion polls as the most popular option, it is by no means clear that being in or out of the UK is the decisive question for voters. If there were to be no middle option on offer, some who would otherwise back devo max or devo plus will be ready to choose independence over the status quo.

The latest survey of Scottish social attitudes showed around two-thirds of Scots believed all domestic issues, including welfare and pensions, should be decided in Scotland, but a similar proportion felt foreign affairs and defence should remain the responsibility of Westminster.

Alex Salmond and the SNP are doing all they can to capitalise on that public mood and win people to the independence cause. They believe Scots “want to be persuaded”. Mr Salmond has rebranded devolution as “limited independence” and hopes voters will agree it’s worth going that little bit further.

If the Tories want to counter that, Mr Cameron may want to start by elaborating on his message in Edinburgh last month and spelling out how he sees devolution being “improved”. Ms Davidson’s line in the sand has already been washed away.