RUTH Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, has rounded on “apologetic” colleagues who have a “sackcloth and ashes” view of the party’s future, in a combative riposte to critics of her leadership.
In a Scotland on Sunday interview ahead of the party’s conference next weekend, she tells her party to ditch “the navel gazing” about her role and insists her reforms are starting to reverse “19 years of stagnation”.
Davidson’s remarks come after a stormy two weeks within the Scottish Conservatives. Senior party figures have criticised her leadership following her decision to support a policy of handing more powers to the Scottish Parliament, and raised questions over her parliamentary style.
Lord Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary, described the u-turn on more powers as a “suicide mission”.
However, Davidson says today that Prime Minister David Cameron, who she will welcome to the party’s conference in Stirling at the end of this week, is “on board” with her plans to embed greater devolution in the party’s next election manifesto – assuming voters do not back independence first.
Asked whether she was annoyed by the questions the party faced, she replied: “What annoys me is that people don’t see or acknowledge the fact that, as a party, we have got our tails up at the moment. We have an issue [the independence referendum] that we can really fight for.”
She added: “No more navel gazing and no more sackcloth and ashes, because sometimes we have been, for me, too apologetic. I am proud of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. I joined it for a reason. I believe in Conservatism.”
However, the internal debate within the party over extending devolution looks set to rumble on into the party conference this week, amid criticism that delegates will not be allowed to debate the issue.
Pro-reform MSPs said the decision by party chiefs was a “missed opportunity” for proper discussion, but Davidson says today she does not want to “preempt” an internal review she has now set up, being led by the Tory peer Lord Strathclyde.
She also says she wants the conference to focus on policy issues such as the economy, education and transport.
Davidson insists the reforms she has put in place since taking over from Annabel Goldie a year ago now need time to bed in. “We have had 19 years of decline and stagnation and it will take time to turn that around.”
And in a thinly-veiled warning to under-performing MSPs, she highlights fresh attempts to bring in the “brightest and best” to stand at Holyrood and Westminster as the party attempts to find “new blood” through a “much more stringent selection” process. “I will have to put myself back through that process. They [MSPs] all have to go through that,” she said.
Insiders say the process could lead to a number of current MSPs either stepping aside, or being placed behind other candidates on the crucial party list. One MSP who backs Davidson’s plans said that “a few [MSPs] don’t pull their weight.”
Those Conservatives in favour of granting more powers for Holyrood said last night that it was a mistake not to be debating the issue this week. One said: “It’s a missed opportunity. We should be putting this on the agenda.”
The issue will, however, be debated at two fringe events. Last night, one leading proponent of reform, MEP Struan Stevenson – who is speaking at one of the fringe events – said the party had to come to terms with a more powerful Scottish Parliament.
He said: “The Scottish Conservatives will never have any fertile ground to plough in Scotland as long as we live on a block grant from Westminster. We are the party that can offer efficiency and low tax and a competent government but you can’t do that when you are funded through the Barnett block grant.”
SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing said last night: “It is not surprising Ruth Davidson has prevented discussions on more powers for Scotland as we all know the Tories have no real commitment to it. We have heard these empty promises before.”