Leaders: Little sign of brightness for Scots Tories

If Scottish Conservative prospects were indeed brightening it would surely be evident by now. Picture: John Devlin
If Scottish Conservative prospects were indeed brightening it would surely be evident by now. Picture: John Devlin
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Ruth Davidson says the party is on track for its ‘best ever result’ at Holyrood, but it has not yet been able to shake the ‘toxic brand’ tag

A Scottish Labour opposition in disarray; a Liberal Democrat opposition reduced to rubble: might it be, as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson predicted at the Tory conference in Manchester yesterday, that her party is on track for its “best ever result” in next year’s Holyrood elections?

It would be remarkable if the party did not improve on its current showing of just 15 MSPs. Labour and the SNP are locked in a fractious battle to demonstrate that each is more to the left than the other.

There is little real counter-attack to this relentless left rhetoric or one that appears to connect with voters. But there is little sign, with the Scottish Parliament election only eight months away, that any upsurge on the centre-right has been building. If Scottish Conservative prospects were indeed brightening, as Ms Davidson suggests, it would surely be evident by now.

The huge challenge facing the Scottish Conservatives is not just a widespread respect for the performance of Nicola Sturgeon since she took on the mantle of First Minister last year. The Conservatives’ problem is that the politics of the left has been for some time and remains the reigning zeitgeist in Scotland. Despite an innovative leader with a sharply different style and manner to the traditional Tory stereotype, the party has been unable to escape its past or break through the characterisation of being politically untouchable, a “toxic” brand.

Ms Davidson has scarcely put a foot wrong since assuming the leadership of the Scottish party. She is personable and engaging and has brought intelligence and acuity to her critique of the SNP administration. It is hard to see that the party’s fortunes would be better under another leader; indeed, its current entrapment might have been considerably worse.

So what exactly are the grounds for her belief that the party is on course for returning the largest number of MSPs since devolution began – not exactly a startling breakthrough in political terms, but an uplift nonetheless in the teeth of the relentless reflex denunciation of Labour and the SNP?

For the past few years the Conservatives have suffered from tactical voting, many of its supporters lending their support to Labour to staunch the rise of the SNP.

It is hard to see how such tactical voting could persist with Labour now led by the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn. There may also be a gradual swing away from the SNP in the face of public unease over its complacency on education policy, its handling of Police Scotland and the political wear and tear to which a governing party inevitably succumbs after eight years in office.

But arguably the greatest latent support for the party lies in focused voter attention on the income tax consequentials of greater powers coming to Holyrood in the next year and an enlarged SNP presence.

What voters may tell opinion pollsters on their attitude to higher tax is one thing. Voting for a higher-tax manifesto is quite another.

And it is on this issue of tax that Ms Davidson should press her attack.

Bad case of Targetitis needs treating

In the waiting room, the patient is twitching. Confused and incoherent responses are symptoms of a persistent malaise. The patient is the NHS and the condition is Targetitis. A period of abstinence is in order. But will the patient respond to treatment? Not before time, searching questions are being asked on the efficacy of performance targets in the NHS. MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee have queried whether this is the best use of public money and whether there should be more flexibility around the most prominent area of targeting: the four-hour A&E waiting time standard.

Apologists say demanding targets keep hospitals focused on patient needs and circumstances. But the public has become steadily inured to the Targetitis cult. Rules around the targets have often been modified or redefined. Categories of condition find themselves excluded, or the figures massaged to show success. The public does not have the confidence it once had that such targets are being honoured in the manner originally intended.

There is also the issue of whether the high cost of achieving marginal improvements in performance in one area may be working to drain resources from other areas of care where public need is at least as great.

The committee heard that resources were often diverted to the possible detriment of other projects, and that a focus on key targets could result in “large sums of money being spent to achieve marginal improvements”. There is no doubt that health board performance must be properly monitored. But we must also guard against Targetitis addiction that can result in a drain on taxpayers’ money and which diverts attention from what our health service should be doing – saving lives.