Memo leaves Tories in a tangle

OVER the past few weeks Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, looked to be halting the seepage of party morale and presenting a credible centre-right challenge in the run-up to the Holyrood election.

There was an impressive performance on BBC's Question Time; well argued policies on criminal justice reform and on Scotland's drug problem; and in the Holyrood parliament on Thursday a killer riposte to First Minister Jack McConnell's taunts on internal party memos. "At least ours", she fired back, "don't end up in Scotland Yard."

But this weekend's party conference in Perth has been overshadowed by a leaked memo reported to be from the shadow Scottish secretary, David Mundell, on the lack of thinkers in the Scottish party. It criticised Ms Goldie's leadership and called for the replacement of the party chairman, Peter Duncan. What should have been a clear rallying call by David Cameron yesterday was further overcast by remarks from conference chairman Bill Walker supporting Patrick Mercer MP over his racism comments and criticising Mr Cameron for sacking him. It is hardly surprising that the UK leader's strong support for Ms Goldie was lost in the disputatious muddle that has overwhelmed the party - and all this with less than two months to go to the Holyrood poll.

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There can be little doubt that there is a section of middle Scotland which regards itself as unrepresented in political life but the Conservative party seems to have failed to attract them to its current banner. It has not produced sufficient policy initiatives to exploit dissatisfaction with the Executive's stewardship of the country among those against pressing the independence button, and it has not exploited extensive powers within the devolution settlement which have not been used and which could make a positive and welcome change.

It is too late now for the party to go into a policy convulsion. It needs discipline to play to best effect the cards which it has chosen. But it looks increasingly as if there is a coming convulsion on the centre-right, post 3 May. It is one for which various groupings are positioning themselves. These need to be threaded together in a coalition capable of mounting a challenge to the left. Central to this will be the development of a distinctive voice and persona best attuned to Scottish conditions and the championing of a parliament much more accountable to voters through the responsibility of raising tax for the money it spends. Fresh policies must be encouraged on Scottish education.

But, for the present, Ms Goldie has battle enough to hold the party together over the coming weeks.