Brian Monteith: Lone voice could boost Tories in EU debate

Ruth Davidson has spoken out in favour of remaining in the EU, but her party needs to offer voters a variety of voices if they are to win votes in the Holyrood elections 'in May. Picture: TSPL
Ruth Davidson has spoken out in favour of remaining in the EU, but her party needs to offer voters a variety of voices if they are to win votes in the Holyrood elections 'in May. Picture: TSPL
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MARGARET Mitchell’s backing for an Out vote lets Ruth Davidson offer voters an alternative to Ukip, writes Brian Monteith

It is now more than four years since Ruth Davidson became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, and it would be churlish for sceptics or opponents not to recognise she has made a good fist of it.

When the leadership election was held I saw little, if any, possibility of reviving the party. So many times had a political defibrillator been applied, yet all attempts had failed to bring the patient to life.

There had, of course, been a few electoral successes since the Westminster wipe-out of 1997, but these had been the equivalent of a solitary finger being lifted, or a fluttering of eyelids – nothing was sustained that would result in the patient sitting up, walking out of the hospital and getting into a ministerial limousine to take part in government.

I thought Murdo Fraser was right when he argued that it would be better to start over again with a new party that might forego much of the baggage of the past and try to create something new. For me, just shouting louder had not worked; too many opportunities to win back support had been passed by and nobody was listening any more.

While Fraser’s idea won a lot of admirers, not enough of them were actually in the party and so in a position to vote for him. Ruth Davidson – only just a parliamentarian that year – became the last hope of the establishment and won the day.

Ironically, if there was a candidate that would have been an ideal leader for a new right-of-centre party it was Davidson. Firstly, she broke all the lazy stereotypes of what a Tory should be, but more importantly she is too young to be responsible for Conservative policies of the past and was at liberty to come up with new ones.

She went through a quick learning curve and sometimes had to find the reverse gear on policy, such as deciding it was necessary after all to grant more powers to the Scottish Parliament. She has advocated tax cuts at Holyrood for a number of years now, something that her predecessors had been reluctant to do, and she showed during the Scottish independence referendum campaign that she can take on all comers. This was a useful grounding, for if anyone can lay a glove on the First Minister now, it is Ruth Davidson.

Helped in part by the collapse in the Scottish Labour Party, but also because she has made it her business to be the genuine alternative to the SNP, the Conservatives may yet win enough support in May’s elections to make them the official opposition. Now that would be progress.

A lot of water could yet pass under the bridge between now and May and leave Davidson marooned, but for now Conservative morale is high. If I were looking for a weak spot in the Conservative strategy it would be Davidson’s devotion to the European Union, a devotion that saw her make a speech last year in defence of EU membership long before the Prime Minister had even come close to discussing the deal he wanted. That to me was a misstep, for it was entirely unnecessary and had the immediate effect of shutting down debate in her party.

Now, it is no doubt commonly held that party loyalty and discipline within the ranks is a good thing for a leader to possess, not least with an election approaching, but there can also be benefits from airing differences, so long as this is done in a civilised and respectful manner. Allowing discourse about the UK’s membership of the European Union is one subject where there can be room for such debate, for without it the real danger is that potential Conservative voters could feel less inclined to vote for Davidson and her party. And that is what might just happen now to the Conservatives – and indeed Labour and even the SNP.

Scottish polling has shown consistently that among the three main parties, nearly half of Conservatives, a third of Nationalists and a quarter of Labour supporters are in favour of leaving the European Union. Now consider that in real numbers: potentially some 440,000 SNP voters, 180,000 Labour voters and 220,000 Conservative voters – a total of 840,000 people sympathetic to voting “leave” in the forthcoming referendum.

Who speaks for them? Not one of the party leaders, or the parties themselves, offer anything other than complete subservience to the EU and its growth into a superstate. Where should voters turn in May as the issue of EU membership becomes a more dominant issue during the Holyrood elections?

The most recent polling suggests that enough of those eurosceptic voters are about to turn to Ukip, with them potentially winning more than 6 per cent and a handful of seats, often at the expense of Conservative gains.

There are many Conservative candidates that would like to speak out in favour of leaving the EU – I know this because I have spoken to them. Most, with a few noble exceptions, have thus far felt it better to wait until after the May election, for fear of coming between the party and an electoral recovery.

There is, however, a flaw in this reckoning, for if Conservatives – and indeed politicians belonging to Labour and the SNP – do not say they believe leaving the EU is preferable, then more voters will conclude that only Ukip’s Holyrood candidates represent how they think.

Ruth Davidson may yet find that the percentage she hopes will take her party past Labour in May is shaved away by votes drifting towards Ukip, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (well, second place, really).

So it was interesting, if not positively refreshing, to hear last week that Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell has done something that renowned eurosceptics Alex Johnstone and Murdo Fraser felt unable to do when she announced she was in favour of leaving the European Union. At last the Scottish people – or at least a large minority of them – have a voice that is willing to challenge the consensus.

Davidson should thank Mitchell, for she has done her leader and her party a big favour: she has shown there is another reason to vote Tory. Time will tell if it is enough to stop the growth of Ukip in Scotland.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain