Brian Monteith: There’s still time to change the self-defeating Tory campaign

With political campaigning suspended as a mark of respect by all political parties following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, these last few days offered an opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives to undertake a period of reflection on why their campaign does not appear to be making the progress it needs if they are to bring to an end the domination of the SNP at Holyrood.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross on election campaign trail.

A week does not pass without more grim news breaking about the latest policy failure or ministerial scandal and yet the SNP simply carries on regardless, seemingly immune to any fall in public support. Millions of public funds can be wasted or damning evidence about climbing drug deaths, falling educational attainment and a growing healthcare backlog can all queue up like buses on Princes Street – yet other than supplying a quote to the media there is no sustained attack. The litany of public service failure mounts but the Conservatives make no dent on the government’s reputation. They need to be asking themselves, why?

In part the SNP’s popularity must be that it has managed to maintain the façade it is not the establishment in charge and responsible for what ails Scotland but is our guardian seeking to overturn indifference emanating from London. It is as if devolution and 14 years of SNP rule have never happened. All opposition parties but especially the Conservatives need to focus on the dreadful statistics of public service failure and who is responsible for them – because the blame squarely lies in Edinburgh and the SNP (and Greens). Such an approach needs not just guile but hard work pushing out messages repeatedly until they become lodged in the public psyche. I don’t see this happening.

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Nor is there any attractive alternative being offered. If the Scottish Conservatives have a smarter way to run the economy so we actually get desperately needed tax revenues and job-generating growth I have yet to hear it. If Douglas Ross’s team has a plan to improve the life chances of young Scots through delivering inspirational education and life-extending health outcomes I cannot point to it. Given, as a political commentator, I am probably better informed than the average voter and yet I remain in the dark, what chance does their current approach have in converting the voters they need in large numbers to accepting the benefits of voting Conservative?

I edit a right-of centre political website which should be a natural home for Conservative politicians wishing to win hearts and minds over to their cause and yet, apart from a few notable exceptions, I have to harry and chase articles putting the Tory case instead of being inundated with them. I have to research and commission articles on the current political realities rather than be fed the type of material I recall in the past was pumped-out by teams of eager interns. I currently receive more approaches from politicians of other parties than I do from Conservatives and they often have far more to say about what they would do than the official opposition. That cannot be right.

The fundamental problem appears to be the official opposition party simply does not want to offer a Conservative alternative to what passes for government in Scotland for fear that it would not be as successful as campaigning against a referendum we know the Scottish people does not want.

They are content to settle for being the main opposition – to settle for coming second – by creating a fake contest that places them just ahead of Labour but always behind the SNP rather than showing how they could run Scotland better because that is a riskier strategy. This approach rather suggests they do not believe in themselves – they are the team going into a cup final content with simply making it there and getting a runners-up medal than believing they can ultimately win.

An example of this stood out last week when an official Tory tweet warned Scots that unless they voted Conservative the SNP would remain in power and hold a referendum. But wait, do Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson not know their own party leader and Prime Minister has ruled out a referendum whatever the outcome of the Holyrood election? He has pointed out the Scottish Parliament has no legal competence to run a referendum and that any Holyrood election cannot provide a mandate for a responsibility the Scottish Government cannot execute or honour.

Ironically it is Ross and Davidson who are doing the SNP’s work in undermining the Prime Minister’s consistent and logical position by turning the Holyrood elections into a referendum on having a referendum. The likelihood is the SNP shall therefore remain the largest party and as a government then claim it has a mandate and moral authority to act beyond its powers. This is a dangerous and seriously mistaken approach.

Another daft behaviour was Douglas Ross suggesting voters might vote for candidates better placed to beat the SNP (such as Labour or Lib Dems) but on the same day Ruth Davidson tweeting out a photo of her campaigning against a Liberal Democrat incumbent rather than in an SNP-held seat.

The Scottish Labour Party, now under new management, has worked out the SNP’s trap and is not seeking to play its game. Without having yet had the time to completely overhaul his party’s offering Anas Sarwar is at least talking more about a Covid recovery plan than a referendum. If the Scottish Conservatives are not careful the long march that Labour has to make might just begin to gain traction and overtake them.

Brian Monteith is editor of and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.


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