After their success under Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives risk being easily demonised by rivals again, writes Brian Monteith.
Just what can the Scottish Conservatives do to rescue themselves from an irresistible return to political irrelevance in Scotland? An election for a new leader of the party is at long last about to begin, but will that be enough to return it to being the best hope to provide an alternative administration to the SNP?
Let us remind ourselves of a few salient facts.
A look back
In the 2010 general election when David Cameron managed to form a coalition government with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives – led by Annabel Goldie – managed to win only one seat on a vote share of 16.7 per cent. The following year in the Holyrood election, Goldie delivered the poorest
Scottish Conservative result ever, dropping from 17 MSPs to 15 on a constituency vote of 13.9 per cent and a list vote of 12.4 per cent.
After a keenly contested leadership campaign, newcomer Ruth Davidson defeated Murdo Fraser, with Jackson Carlaw coming third and Margaret Mitchell fourth. Within five years, peak Tory at Holyrood was reached when the party won 31 MSPs on a constituency vote share of 22 per cent and a list vote share of 22.9 per cent.
Peak Tory at Westminster was then reached in 2017 when the Scottish party won 13 MPs with a vote share of 28.6 per cent. In last month’s general election the Scottish Tories slipped to 25 per cent, losing seven MPs that reduced them to only six seats.
In my view the climb of the Scottish Conservatives from the doldrums to become the leading opposition party to the SNP was achieved primarily because Davidson offered a likeable personality that played against so many of the pejorative Tory stereotypes painted by her opponents – further, she was the most effective exponent of unionism against an SNP that would not respect the referendum result by focusing on the day job.
The constitutional issue continues to both help and damage the Tories. While opposition to a second referendum had in the past been a huge vote winner, it appeared less of a threat in December as other parties majored on seeking to halt Brexit or talking up the threat of Boris Johnson.
In England and Wales the fear of Jeremy Corbyn’s unpatriotic brand of socialism and his party’s betrayal over respecting Brexit squeezed Labour votes towards Johnson’s Tories. In contrast, many disenchanted Scottish Labour supporters loaned their votes to the SNP rather than Johnson’s Tories.
The constitutional issue is not going away, so it will continue to benefit the Tories’ more robust defence of remaining British – but it also masks to the point of irrelevance the problems faced by Scotland’s public services and the SNP government’s culpability – suppressing the ability of Tories to make these a determining issue when it comes to all unionists casting a vote.
Irrespective of what might happen at Westminster, it was always known that the next Holyrood election would be in May 2021; the task for Davidson was to create a government-in-waiting.
This would require the Scottish Conservatives to become the largest party so Davidson might be able to form a minority administration with a unionist coalition or, failing that, a comfort-and-supply arrangement from other unionist parties. One would expect that, as well as remaining the undisputed obstacle to a second independence referendum, the Scottish Tories would be able to craft attractive policies to improve the public services that have so obviously been in relative decline under the SNP.
Unfortunately for the Scottish Conservatives, Davidson took her party down two blind alleys. Such was her opposition to leaving the European Union that she denied herself and her party any opportunity to capitalise after the referendum on the 38 per cent of Scottish support for leaving the EU. Further, and directly related to the former, she was too vocal in her opposition to the influence of Johnson in the party – so much so that, when the election to replace Theresa May arrived, she openly backed Savid Javid, then Michael Gove and finally Jeremy Hunt in a futile display of “anybody but Boris” that was little short of self-indulgent.
These misjudgments had consequences, closing down lines of arguments about what the benefits of Brexit could be to Scotland (they generally went unsaid) or making it difficult for Scottish Tories to embrace the undoubted optimism of Johnson’s campaigning style. Both were strategic errors that fed into the SNP’s narrative of demonising the Conservative government and undermining support for her party’s MPs.
That these were self-evident problems for party campaigners was evidenced when Carlaw made peace with Johnson once he became the acting Scottish party leader after Davidson’s surprise resignation.
In the aftermath of the general election, with the media focus now turning towards the Holyrood elections, we now have a Scottish Tory party that is highly vocal in criticising the SNP’s ample failings in office and preoccupation with independence but has failed in the last three years to develop any relevant policy offering that makes it an attractive alternative.
Can we really expect either Carlaw or Michelle Ballantyne to repair the damage done by Davidson’s blind-spots and begin to offer a credible government in waiting?
By managing to detoxify the Tory brand, through the power of her own personality and remodelling it as a single-issue unionist party rather than a Conservative Party, Davidson led the Tories out of their pen and into new pastures. If they are not careful there is a danger that Carlaw and Ballantyne, both being of more traditional Tory stock, will allow the Scottish Conservatives to be rebranded by their opponents as the same old, same old, pre-Davidson Tories.
Likewise they shall both face the problem Davidson would either not fully confront or could not solve – what policies can they offer that do not allow their opponents to unfairly demonise the party as heartless and uncaring or interested in only those who are already successful?
If the SNP is to be defeated it surely requires more than defending the Union, which should be a given. Scottish Conservatives must challenge the SNP on the weaknesses where the judgment will result in rejection.
Davidson was clearly policy-averse – will a new leader be any different? Can he or she afford not to be?
Brian Monteith MEP is chief whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament and a former Scottish Conservative MSP