Why Scottish Tories should focus on opposing indyref2 under new leader – Ian Swanson

Jackson Carlaw is in pole positiion as the Scottish Tories look to elect a new leader. Picture: PA
Jackson Carlaw is in pole positiion as the Scottish Tories look to elect a new leader. Picture: PA
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The Scottish Conservatives’ stance on independence is a tried and tested means of winning votes, while persuading the public to support Tory policies could be a more difficult task, writes Ian Swanson.

SCOTTISH Tories look set to elect interim leader Jackson Carlaw to the permanent role despite decidedly mixed results north of the border at last month’s UK general election.

Nominations for the post close on Friday. A whole raft of hopefuls had been tipped to go for it, including justice spokesman Liam Kerr and health spokesman and Lothian MSP Miles Briggs.

But most of them have now decided to throw their weight behind Mr Carlaw, who has been doing the job since Ruth Davidson’s decision to quit last summer, citing the demands of motherhood and her disagreement with new UK leader Boris Johnson over Brexit.

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Many inside and outside the Tory party had expected Ms Davidson’s departure to lead to a major collapse in the party’s support in Scotland. Her down-to-earth style and the fact she did not fit normal Tory stereotypes had led to notable successes for the party, winning a record 31 MSPs in 2016, overtaking Labour to become the main opposition party at Holyrood, and then going from one MP to 13 in the 2017 Westminster election.

Jackson ‘performed well’

But predictions the Tories could return to just having one Scottish MP – or even be wiped out altogether – in the December 12 election proved wrong. They lost seven of their 13 seats, but held onto the other six.

“The MSP group thinks Jackson performed well in the general election and had a good campaign despite the result,” says one insider. “At the start some people thought we would lose all of them. Most party members think it could have been a lot worse.

“Ruth didn’t come up on the doorstep as much as you’d have thought – it was Brexit and independence. Occasionally people said they were disappointed Ruth had gone but mostly it was people who were still voting Tory.”

Despite the decision by many of the potential challengers to give their backing to Mr Carlaw, there will still be a contest. South of Scotland MSP Michelle Ballantyne, who has campaigned over the delays to Edinburgh’s new Sick Kids hospital but also hit the headlines for controversial comments on how many children ­benefit claimants should have, is standing because she does not want the election to become a coronation.

An unhelpful distraction

Sources say her brand of Toryism will go down well with many grassroots members and she could take 30 per cent or more of the votes in the one-member-one-vote postal ballot which will decide the contest.

With the next Scottish Parliament elections not much more than a year away, the other possible contenders are said to see a more extensive contest as an unhelpful distraction.

Once Mr Carlaw is confirmed in post he is expected to reshuffle the shadow cabinet and then it will be full steam ahead for those May 2021 Holyrood elections.

A second independence referendum is likely to be the big issue of the campaign. It was a No to Indyref2 ­message which helped Ms Davidson to her electoral advances – and also helped the party retain six seats last month.

But many in the party think it’s now time to focus also on the SNP’s record of what will then have been 14 years in government and offer the voters alternative Tory policies.

That could be a risky step, however. Opposition to Indyref2 may seem a monotonous mantra but it is a tried and tested approach for the Tories. Trying to persuade the public of the virtues of Conservative policies could prove a much harder task with more uncertain results.