Jackson Carlaw pledges new ‘forward looking’ union in bid to be First Minister

Jackson Carlaw celebrates following the announcement that he is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh. Picture: PA
Jackson Carlaw celebrates following the announcement that he is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh. Picture: PA
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A new “forward looking” case for Scotland’s place in the UK will be the cornerstone of new Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw’s plans to transform the party and become First Minister.

Mr Cawlaw also unveiled plans for a radical overhaul of the party’s polices and structures after he defeated South of Scotland MSP Michelle Ballantyne to become the party’s new permanent leader in Scotland.

The Eastwood MSP launched a broadside on the “morally bankrupt” SNP, accusing it of presiding over a sweeping decline in Scotland’s public services.

But the SNP insisted that the appointment means the Tories will continue to “parrot whatever line” is handed down by the UK party at Westminster.

Mr Carlaw has been interim leader since Ruth Davidson stood down last August, but yesterday he defeated Ms Ballantyne by 4,917 votes to 1,581 in the contest to head the party on a permanent basis.

SNP demands for a second independence referendum are set to dominate next year’s Holyrood election and Mr Carlaw confirmed plans for a major policy review that will include a new positive case for Scotland’s place in the UK.

“I think it will require us to come up with a fresh narrative for the union,” he said.

“I don’t want that to be lazy and historical, I want it to be forward looking.

“We will be looking at all of these policies carefully.”

The party won’t shift its hardline opposition to a second independence referendum, according to Carlaw.

But he added: “We’re saying no to indyref2 so we can say Yes to so much else.

“We’re going to start focussing on what actually matters in Scotland, put the constitutional arguments behind us.”

The new leader will unveil a shake-up of this frontbench team when Holyrood returns from recess next week and the focus will be on preparing for the Scottish elections in May next year.

He says success would mean becoming the biggest party at Holyrood, although that appears ambitious. The Tories won 31 seats at Holyrood in 2016 to become the second party in Scotland - but this was then half of the 63 seats won by the SNP, albeit two Nationalists - Mark MacDonald and Derek Mackay - have since been kicked out of the party. Polling also gives the SNP a commanding lead.

The review will also mean the party’s opposition to free university tuition in Scotland is likely to be dropped. Mr Carlaw is also expected to back mitigation of the two-child benefit cap, along with the so-called rape clause, which affects an estimated 9,000 Scottish families and would only cost around £10 million a year.

“I have a clear mandate from the party in Scotland now to make the changes required and to lead us into the election next year,” he added.

“This is not about asking the people of Scotland to elect us as a strong opposition, this is about offering the people of Scotland a clear alternative to the SNP and then fighting all the way to polling day next year to provide them with an alternative Government.” He added: “At that point will be saying to them ‘Yes - here is what a Scottish Conservative Government would do, here is the team that would do it and I would be the person leading that team’.

“So when we get to that point, you better believe it, I’ll be asking the people of Scotland to elect a Scottish Conservative Government as the largest party at Holyrood in 2021 and in those circumstances I would hope to be the First Minister.”

The Tory campaign will also seek to focus on the shortcomings of the SNP government in Scotland. “This is a failing government on its last legs, it’s morally and politically bankrupt, it’s got nothing new to say, nothing new to offer,” Mr Carlaw added.

“Every public service is entering this new decade in a worse position than it was only a year ago.”

He described Ms Sturgeon’s administration as “failing in every domestic front”.

“For a long time people overlooked that, but actually I think now they want an alternative. You can’t have a one party state, they need to believe there’s something better and it’s no incumbent on us to be the party that offers that.”

Glasgow MSP Annie Wells will become a joint deputy leader of the party alongside North East MSP Liam Kerr. Rachael Hamilton, the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP, is to become a party chairwoman, alongside existing chairman Rab Forman.

A major overhaul of the party’s internal structures will also be carried out.

“We are not ready at the moment, either politically or organisationally, to fight an election we can win,” Mr Carlaw added.

“So we have a short window of opportunity, I’ve got the ideas and plans to put in place to achieve that and we’ll be addressing them with real urgency.

“When it comes to 2021 I think we’ve identified a considerable number of very talented candidates and I will be ensuring that we have a list ranking process for the regional vote which will allow is to ensure that the very best talent comes into Holyrood.”

The SNP pointed to Mr Carlaw’s role at the helm of the party during December’s general election campaign when it lost seven of 13 seats north of the Border.

Deputy Leader Keith Brown said: “With Jackson having run the party through their General Election collapse, this is a case of ‘meet the new boss – same as the old boss’.

“The big test for Mr Carlaw will be whether he will stand up for Scotland’s interests against Boris Johnson.

“He used to say that Boris Johnson wasn’t fit to be Prime Minister. He was right – but then he campaigned for precisely that.

“Just as they went from Remainers to hard Brexiteers, it’s obvious that the Scottish Tories will continue to parrot whatever line they’re handed down from Westminster.”