Following the cacophony of consternation and celebration after David Cameron’s surprise victory in the general election, it has all but been forgotten that the Scottish Conservatives recorded their worst performance in a Westminster contest and the road to political recovery continues to look bleak.
This, despite a valiant campaign by its leader, Ruth Davidson, and the benefit of a new self-belief amongst its activists and supporters that came from a robust referendum campaign and the endorsement of the Union. Nevertheless, all that hard work and encouragement has counted for nought.
What, then, can be done, if anything at all? Or is the Scottish Conservative Party destined to be like the Ancient Mariner, cursed for the rest of eternity?
We have been her many times before, but the prognosis never actually gets better. Let us recall that the received wisdom – even amongst opponents – has been that, following devolution, Scots would have to take responsibility for their political decisions and would no longer blame Westminster. This, together with the fact that Scottish Conservatives would be conceiving and articulating policies solely for Scotland in Scotland, would allow them to find their own voice, and this would mean they would leave their unpopularity behind.
Well, the received wisdom was wrong on both counts. In its 16 years,devolution has not resulted in Scottish parties or the Scottish electorate taking responsibility for their decisions. Even though health, education, transport, justice and other public services are controlled by Scottish politicians, all too often decisions at Westminster are blamed for poor outcomes because it is easier to do so than admit the failings of Scottish governments.
The scandalous decline in Scottish education, the embarrassing delays in our NHS and the continued delays and overspending in infrastructure projects (will the M8 ever be completed; will the Borders Railway ever open?) have nothing to do with UK governments. Budgets might be tight, but they are still generous in comparison to what went before. The repeated failure has not been due to lack of money but to bad political decisions. Meantime, Westminster has delivered better education and health outcomes than Holyrood with less money.
While blaming Westminster has continued, so, too, has the relative unpopularity of the Scottish Conservatives – and with a Tory government for the next five years, we can expect both phenomena to continue.
The Tory share of the vote last month fell to 14.9 per cent. In 1997, it was 17.5 per cent; in 2001, it was 15.6 per cent, and in 2005 it was 15.8 per cent, while five years ago it had recovered marginally to 16.7 per cent. This has to be seen against Margaret Thatcher’s poorest result of 24.0 per cent in 1987 and John Major achieving 25.6 per cent in 1992. What we are witnessing is nothing better than managed decline.
It is often said by party supporters that the latent Conservative vote in Scotland is actually higher than the figures show, due to many Tories voting for other parties to try to stop others winning. Thus, Labour’s Ian Murray will have (successfully) benefited from Conservative voters trying to prevent the SNP wining in Edinburgh South, as will Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates elsewhere. But this is only half the story. David Mundell will also have benefited from supporters of other unionist parties hoping to prevent the SNP taking his Borders seat. Indeed, in ten seats, the recommendation was to tactically vote Conservative to stop the SNP. It is impossible, then, to tell what is the true Conservative support in Scotland, because in some constituencies tactical voting will have inflated the vote share while in others it will have depressed it.
There has been talk by some people outside the Scottish Conservatives that it is time to establish a new centre-right party – but that is a tall order in the short time remaining before the Holyrood election next May. We are now entering the summer, bringing a parliamentary recess and holidays. Serious politics will be nigh impossible and mostly forgotten before September. That leaves the best part of three months to make an impact before the Christmas and New Year break – after which all parties will start the year on an election footing.
To have any chance of success, a new party would need to manufacture an electoral earthquake to build up momentum by winning a by-election or attracting a sizeable group of MSPs from the Scottish Conservatives – and I see no reason for either to happen. By-elections at Holyrood are rare and cannot be depended upon to arise or be magicked up.
Likewise, the Tory MSPs are not going to put at risk their political futures and salaries – and those of their staff – by dedicating themselves to a new, untested outfit. Better, they will think, to give Ruth Davidson their all between now and the Holyrood elections and try to reverse the decline. Nothing will therefore change until another defeat or a surprise rejuvenation at next year’s elections.
That is not to say a further fall in Scottish Conservative support would not precipitate a crisis within the party; it almost certainly would, with a leadership contest likely as well. At that point, new people who have no current interest in being involved with the Conservatives but could be motivated by a new party will be able to intervene by offering to take the new venture forward.
Of course it may not be necessary, Ruth Davidson may do what others before her have all failed to do and arrest the decline. She may find a way to convince the electorate that the Scottish Conservatives have attractive enough policies and the ability to deliver on them – or at the very least be the best opposition to the SNP.
She has, deservedly, won many admirers for her tenacity and sure-footed debating style that often poses a threat to the First Minister. She has not only come round to advocating further devolved powers, she has plans to use them to cut taxes and make life better for taxpayers in Scotland. Next year’s Scottish Conservative manifesto promises to be the most attractive to centre-right voters yet. Whether or not that will be enough remains to be seen – but if it is not, then it must be time to accept it’s time for a new approach.