Ian Swanson: Tories have still Scot plenty to ponder

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The party conference may not have gone entirely to plan for David Cameron, but his woes are nothing compared to Annabel Goldie's, says Political Editor Ian Swanson

ON a walkabout in Morningside during the general election, senior Tory William Hague was understandably cautious about forecasting how many seats his party was going to win in Scotland.

Conservative strategists had identified 11 target seats north of the Border, but Mr Hague cautiously settled for "more than one". When the day came, however, even that modest prediction proved too optimistic and David Mundell remained the Tories' solitary Scottish representative at Westminster.

The party's embarrassment has, of course, largely been covered by the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which has given Mr Mundell a "bodyguard" of 11 Scottish Lib Dem MPs. But the Conservatives know their poor showing in Scotland is a serious weakness for a party that believes so strongly in the United Kingdom.

The Tories cannot blame a lack of resources for the bad result in May - the party threw lots of cash, some say as much as 400,000 - into the campaign, and many observers judged that Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie put up a feisty fight.

So why is it that, four general elections on from the Tory wipeout of 1997, the party has failed to make a comeback?

A report is expected by the end of the month from the special commission headed by former Scottish Office minister Lord Sanderson which was appointed to review the "structures, functions and operational activity".

Few believe it will come up with anything that is going to make much difference. "Expectations are not very high," admits one source.

Insiders say its most likely recommendation is that the party needs a "unified leadership" to avoid uncertainty over who is really in charge - the leader of the MSPs at Holyrood, the Scottish spokesman at Westminster or the Scottish party chairman.

Other ideas have been floated, including a completely separate party north of the Border or a change of name, but are not expected to be endorsed by the review. One insider says: "Whatever we call ourselves, people will still see us as the Tories."

The party which once polled more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland seems to have dropped permanently out of favour with the majority of Scottish voters, and the problem can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, the poll tax and the demise of Scotland's traditional industries.

Before the election, senior Tory figures insisted they had "detoxified" the Tory brand in Scotland. The reception on the doorstep was less hostile and people who had not previously voted Conservative were now prepared to consider it.

The Tories did manage to win more votes than in 2005, but they were still well below the level in 1997, their year of disaster.

It will be 20 years next month since Margaret Thatcher stepped down as Prime Minister. Many voters today are too young to have any real memory of the Iron Lady, but it looks as if the Thatcher era has become so well established in Scotland's collective memory that time does little to revive party fortunes.

The Tories seem to recognise what the problem is, but in acknowledging it, they also seem determined to perpetuate it.

Glasgow candidate Ivor Tiefenbrun was forced to resign yesterday, saying Scots were "thick" for disliking Margaret Thatcher.

His comments - "The way Labour work is that they have demonised Thatcher as if she was an evil force. It's only because Scots are so thick that this was swallowed" - do nothing to make the party more appealing.

The next test for the Scottish Tories comes in just seven months' time with next year's Holyrood elections. Inevitably, the record of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster will influence their showing, as will the party's attitude to spending cuts in Scotland.

Reports at the weekend suggested Ms Goldie is ready to do a U-turn and drop her 2005 promise that the Tories would not go into coalition with anyone regardless of the result. A coalition involving the Tories will, it is claimed, be on the cards next year, except that none of the other parties will want anything to do with them.

It is also widely expected that Ms Goldie will step down after the election.

An insider says: "Most people think she will retire after election or, if not, there will be some sort of challenge within the first few months of the next parliament.

"It depends how we do, but most people see this as her last election."

Her deputy, Murdo Fraser, is tipped as the most likely successor, though West of Scotland MSP Jackson Carlaw is also said to fancy his chances, as might finance spokesman Derek Brownlee if he gets re-elected.

No-one, however, pretends a change of leader is suddenly going to change the party's fortunes.

No doubt the questions will go on being asked: what must be done to win again? How can the party be made more appealing? There may be a better question, though: will anything the Tories do make any difference?

Logic does not dictate that just because there's a problem there has to be a solution.


Scottish Tories' general election performances

1997: 17.5% 493,059 votes 0 seats

2001: 15.6% 360,658 votes 1 seat

2005: 15.8% 369,388 votes 1 seat

2010: 16.7% 412,855 votes 1 seat