THE Scottish Tories have been "detoxified" by David Cameron's government and can make significant gains at the polls in May, the leader of the party's Holyrood election campaign has claimed.
David McLetchie told The Scotsman that a "major part" of the party's election campaign strategy would focus on a "robust defence of the UK government".
The former Scottish Tory leader, who is now co-ordinating the party's election campaign, said that having a Conservative government at UK level would lead to it adding to its tally of 17 MSPs at this year's Holyrood elections.
With neither Labour nor the SNP expected to win a clear majority in the polls, any gain would improve the Scottish Tories' bargaining position in a possible coalition government after the votes have been counted.
The Tories were wiped off the political map north of the Border when Labour swept to power in 1997, leaving them with no Scottish MPs.
Since then they have struggled to shake off the "toxic" legacy of the Thatcher and Major governments.
However, Mr McLetchie told The Scotsman that the Scottish Tory party would "proudly proclaim" what David Cameron's government was doing in the run-up to polling day in May and that "most Scots would agree" with the Prime Minister's approach.
His claims sparked an angry reaction from political opponents, with senior Labour MP Thomas Docherty accusing Mr McLetchie of being "delusional" and of harking back to the right-wing policies of the Thatcher and Major governments.
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Mr McLetchie was also criticised by SNP MSP John Wilson for "failing to understand" Scotland by promoting the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government's programme of cuts.
Mr McLetchie claimed that a year of Tory involvement in government at Westminster would boost the party's support in Scotland and said that the Tories would target "soft Nat" voters with centre-right views to help bolster its support during the campaign.
"By the election we will have had a year of the Tories in government and whatever grumbling there is, people will recognise that the government has done positive things," he said.
"It's going to be the first Scottish Parliament election in which we've had a Tory Prime Minister at Westminster."
Mr McLetchie claimed the Cameron factor would wins votes for the Scottish Tories because "Scots are reasonable people and many more people will recognise what the UK government is doing".
He said: "We will improve our seat return compared to 2007 and will proudly proclaim what the UK government is doing.
"We're not going to run away from a defence of the difficult decisions being taken by the UK government.All the public sector needs to be part of these hard decisions."
However, Mr McLetchie was challenged over his claim that the Tory brand is being "detoxified by having the Tories in government" at Westminster and criticised for saying the Scottish party was "proud" of the coalition.
Mr Wilson said: "Clearly David McLetchie is failing to understand that Scottish people have clear memories of the Tories in power between 1979 and 1997.
"The Tories in power decimated Scottish industry such as mining, shipbuilding and steel works.
"Until the Tories finally apologise to the people of Scotland for the demise of the country's industry they will fail to gain support."
But Mr McLetchie suggested that the coalition's agenda had the backing of Scots and said that the Prime Minister would come to Scotland during this year's election campaign to promote the policies.
"A Tory government is a new dynamic and is a big plus for us in terms of the campaign," he said.
He said Mr Cameron would "be part of the campaign", but that Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie would be the main face of the party during the election campaign, saying she was "well recognised" among Scottish voters.
He said: "We see her as a substantial asset and she'll be at the forefront of the campaign.
"It's not a competition between Annabel Goldie and David Cameron."
Labour's Mr Docherty accused Mr McLetchie of promoting "failed Thatcherite" policies, which he said had no real support in Scotland.
Mr Docherty said: "To suggest the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government's policies are popular in Scotland is delusional.
"Scotland suffered at the hands of the Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s, with a raft of pit and shipyard closures.
"Now the Tories in Scotland are yet again backing the same failed Thatcherite policies."
Meanwhile, Mr McLetchie revealed that another key plank of the Tory election strategy this May would focus to win the support of disaffected SNP voters who oppose independence rather than on the Lib Dem.
He said: "We respect the contribution the Liberal Democrats are making to the coalition government.
"We'll proclaim the positive achievement of our government. There may be some Lib Dems voters who think that the best bet to beat Labour in certain seats is to vote Tory.
"We have bigger fish to fry. We are saying to voters that they don't have to choose between Salmond and Gray."