The Scottish Tories have made good progress but should be wary of resurrecting the nasty party tag, writes Tom Peterkin.
Ruth Davidson’s position as the darling of the Conservative Party at first glance seems nigh unassailable. Barely a day goes by without her being tipped as a possible successor to Prime Minister Theresa May. Ms Davidson’s breezy, good-humoured and earthy style has become a breath of fresh air for UK party activists brought up on plummy public school accents.
She has quite rightly received much credit for the Scottish Tory revival, which has seen the party installed as the official opposition at Holyrood, with an enlarged group of 31 MSPs. And after years of getting by with just one Tory MP north of the Border, she has delivered 13 Westminster seats – an outcome which gives her much muscle in the UK party given Mrs May’s fragile grip on power.
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Her star is on the rise and her reputation as a popular politician of the people looks set to be cemented in icing sugar with an appearance on a celebrity version of the Great British Bake-Off looming.
But having soaked up the plaudits at the UK Conservative Party conference in Manchester, there is some business to be done at home where not all is sweetness and light. In fact, some might argue that the Scottish Tory leader would be well advised to swap her rolling pin for a swagger stick and try to instil some discipline in her troops.
While the arrival of reinforcements in the form of new Conservative politicians may be welcome for Ms Davidson, the bolstering of Tory numbers means more leadership is required to keep them in line.
Yesterday, for example, there was the unedifying spectacle of a row over the Moray MP Douglas Ross missing a vote on Universal Credit due to his being in Barcelona running the line at a Champions League match. Mr Ross’s refereeing career got him into trouble when he missed Holyrood events during his previous incarnation as a MSP. This latest trip to officiate over highly-paid sportsmen while his colleagues were debating how to provide for the poorest in society led to yet more criticism.
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As the conqueror of the SNP depute leader Angus Robertson in this year’s general election, Mr Ross’s stock within the party and its supporters is high and the Conservatives duly issued a supportive statement defending his actions. But despite Scotland’s obsession with football, missing important parliamentary debates to swan off to the Nou Camp is not a good look. And it will be a source of irritation that Theresa May was taunted about his absence at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.
Of further concern to Ms Davidson has been the recent expenses row involving Finlay Carson, the MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries. Mr Carson has been criticised after he used his own IT firm to design his website then claimed the £1,200 costs back on parliamentary expenses. While hardly a misdemeanour of moat cleaning or duck house proportions, politicians of all hues should know the importance of being beyond reproach when it comes to the use of public funds.
There have also been the embarrassing controversies involving Alexander Burnett, the wealthy Tory MSP from the North-east, whose aristocratic background makes him a prime target of the class warriors at Holyrood.
Mr Burnett was recently given a two-week ban on asking written questions at the Scottish Parliament after the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life criticised him for failing to declare relevant personal business interests when asking a previous Holyrood written question.
Mr Burnett had asked a series of written questions to Scottish ministers about a proposed property development in his Aberdeenshire West constituency by Ross Developments and Renewables. But he failed to mention he owns rival firm Bancon Developments Holdings.
Meanwhile, the party’s image has also been tarnished by the unpleasant and insulting Twitter activity indulged in by a number of her councillors.
These episodes may be relatively small beer in the roll of dishonour chronicling great political scandals of our age. But neither can they be dismissed as the sort of teething problems that inevitably arise when a group of inexperienced politicians make the step up to parliament.
Recent reports suggest that Ms Davidson believes that there are those of her 2016 Holyrood intake who have failed to impress and there is talk of her seeking fresh talent to stand for the party. But with the next Scottish election still more than three years away, Ms Davidson needs to get a grip on her team in the meantime.
The need for discipline should not be confused with the sort of control freakery that does not tolerate dissent from the party line. That approach – as typified by the SNP, as it set aside all differences of opinion in the interests of Scottish independence – stifles freedom of thought. Rather, Ms Davidson needs to make sure that her politicians steer clear from mistakes which will compromise the party’s hard-won success. For decades the Scottish Conservatives have tried to shed their reputation as the nasty party. From Ms Davidson’s point of view, it would be a shame to undo the good work by succumbing to niggling controversies.
It is more than her status as a Conservative darling that could be damaged, it is the Scottish party as a whole that could suffer. That is why it would pay Ruth to be ruthless when it comes to sorting out her local difficulties.