Scottish Tories: Runners and riders to replace Ruth Davidson – Nick Cook

Current interim leader Jackson Carlaw is the frontrunner, but others like Annie Wells, Michelle Ballantyne and Murdo Fraser could mount a serious challenge too, writes Nick Cook.

Saturday, 21st December 2019, 6:00 am
Ruth Davidson is credited with sparking a revival in the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives (Picture: John Devlin)
Ruth Davidson is credited with sparking a revival in the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives (Picture: John Devlin)

Next year is set to be a pivotal one for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

At last week’s general election, the party secured almost 700,000 votes. One of its best showings at a UK election in almost three decades.

Notably, it did so without Ruth Davidson at the helm, but rather what one Holyrood Tory MSP refers to as the “blond bombshells” Carlaw and Johnson.

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Jackson Carlaw helped preserve Scottish Conservative unity as interim party leader, says Nick Cook (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

But going from 13 seats to six is a disappointment, despite Carlaw ably steering the ship and bringing with him a commendable ability to unify behind him the entire Scottish party.

In these polarising times, the value of a unifier is hard to underestimate.

The sort of infighting that has plagued Scottish Labour and the SNP remains notably absent.

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But a party can only function under an ‘interim’ leader for so long. Next year will require a leadership process – albeit one that remains to be determined by the Scottish Tory management board.

If there is indeed a contest, who might run?

Jackson Carlaw, obviously. He arrives as frontrunner. But neither ‘continuity Ruth’ nor ‘Boris’s man in Scotland’ cuts it long term.

The Perthshire titan

Carlaw will have to provide his own vision and further empower his own team. This must include eyeing up promising would-be MSP candidates, looking beyond current MSPs. Jackson is a social liberal far removed from the golf club stereotype. A political veteran, he is self-aware and won’t to take anyone’s trust for granted.

Any serious challenge to Carlaw taking the crown remains likely to come from the Perthshire titan, Murdo Fraser. Murdo brings with him a high profile and a wealth of established ideas.

There is a coherent, devolutionist case for a big Scottish Tory restructure, for example with Westminster candidates standing as UK Conservatives. The UK Conservative leader of the day would take the credit or shoulder the blame for performance. But to quote Theresa May, the sense from the grassroots appears to be “now is not the time”.

His past belief in an entirely new party may prove too difficult to park. Fraser also deserves better than two unsuccessful tilts at the leadership. He is already one of Holyrood’s few ‘Big Beasts’.

Michelle Ballantyne has been talked up. Her strident views on welfare reform offend some, but in reality probably enjoy a constituency across Scotland.

However, those who have called Ballantyne ‘Boris’s woman in Scotland’ misunderstand Johnson. If such a label were to be given, it would surely now go to Annie Wells MSP. A blue-collar former Labour voter, a wildcard bid from Annie cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile, Liam Kerr MSP and Miles Briggs MSP have proven their talents shadowing Holyrood’s justice and health briefs. Rising stars, I suspect both understand that timing is everything in politics and will sit it out this time.

Whoever becomes Scottish Conservative leader, they will inherit a thriving party almost unrecognisable to the ailing beast Ruth Davidson took over in 2011.

Regardless, they’ll need to be prepared to make that big, bold, positive case for Brexit. And Boris.

Nick Cook is senior Conservative councillor. He represents Morningside Ward.