Ian Swanson: Tory revival still unlikely

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RUTH Davidson has set herself an ambitious target for next year’s Holyrood elections – getting more 
 Tory MSPs elected than the party has ever managed before.

The undeclared aim is said to go even further and replace Labour as the second biggest party after the SNP.

Ms Davidson has a prime slot at the Tory conference in Manchester today, speaking immediately before proceedings come to a climax with David Cameron’s leader’s speech.

The Tories are buoyant after their unexpected victory in the general election. Having feared they were about to be kicked out of power, they are delighted to find themselves in government at all – and especially without the Lib Dems cramping their style.

The fact their Commons majority is dangerously narrow is not 
worrying them – for the moment – and Labour’s apparent disarray only makes them more confident. But there is not much to suggest the Tories in Scotland are on the brink of revival.

The party in Scotland did not have a particularly good election – there’s still just one Tory MP north of the Border, despite the party’s hopes of adding two or three more.

And the Conservative share of the vote in Scotland fell to a new low of 14.9 per cent – although the party can argue some of that was down to its supporters voting tactically for other unionist parties in a vain attempt to stop the SNP.

Ms Davidson did, however, have a good referendum, putting in strong speaking performances – and the Tories found themselves on the winning side for once, which is partly what is fuelling their upbeat mood.

Ms Davidson has also been asserting the right of Scottish Tories to take their own line on some issues.

Soon after becoming leader she famously had to retreat on her “line in the sand” – the promise that the 2012 Scotland Act was the last word on more powers – when David Cameron said he was ready to consider further devolution. But since then she has not been afraid to take a different view from the UK party.

This week, she made it clear she would argue in favour of staying in Europe, whatever the “renegotiation” process produces and regardless of what her colleagues at Westminster argue. It is a bold stance, but also one probably in line with majority public opinion in Scotland.

A new poll found 55 per cent of Scottish voters want to remain in the EU against 30 per cent who want to quit; while in England, 43 per cent favour leaving and 40 per cent say they will vote to stay.

But Ms Davidson is keen not to be painted as an EU enthusiast. When a TV interviewer referred to her passion for Europe, she corrected him: “I’m not that passionate.” Her view was simply that “on balance” Scotland would get more out of staying in the EU than it would from leaving.

But for many Scottish voters, the Tories remain toxic. Memories of Margaret Thatcher have been revived with the serialisation of the latest volume of her authorised biography.

And Mr Cameron’s claim that the party now occupies the centre ground of British politics is less than convincing when Chancellor George Osborne announces the biggest privatisation for 20 years with the discounted sell-off of Lloyds Bank; Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt defends cuts in tax credits by saying people must work harder; and Home Secretary Theresa May launches a fresh onslaught on immigration.

Ms Davidson has her work cut out asking Scottish voters to look afresh at her party.