THE Scottish Conservatives are in chaos after senior figures in the party refused to accept front-bench roles offered to them by Ruth Davidson just days into her leadership.
In a sign of the deepening split among the Tories at Holyrood, where a large chunk of the parliamentary party backed Ms Davidson’s opponent Murdo Fraser, at least three senior MSPs are understood to have rejected portfolios Ms Davidson wanted to hand to them.
Mr Fraser yesterday quit as deputy leader while Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith forced the new leader to “back down” over a request to move from her existing post to take over the rural affairs portfolio.
Mr Fraser’s decision to return to the back-benches has forced Ms Davidson to opt for another defeated candidate, Jackson Carlaw, to fill the deputy leader’s post, a move that will be seized on by opponents as a weakening of her position following the party’s bitter and lengthy leadership contest.
Meanwhile, senior Scottish Tory MSP Mary Scanlon, the only MSP at Holyrood to publicly back Mr Carlaw, is understood to have rejected Ms Davidson’s invitation for her to serve as a health spokeswoman.
The Highlands and Islands MSP, who could not be contacted last night, is thought to be the third party figure to refuse to accept the front-bench role offered to her by Ms Davidson, following a series of one-to-one meetings between the new leader and her MSPs over a two-day period.
The new leader’s attempts to put together a front-bench team, just days after her narrow victory, were dealt a further blow as former Holyrood presiding officer and Conservative MSP Alex Fergusson, another high-profile backer of Mr Fraser, was forced to deny reports that he had also been asked to serve as deputy party leader.
Scottish Tory grandee Sir Albert McQuarrie, an MP between 1979 and 1987, called on the party at Holyrood to “get a grip” and suggested that MSPs unwilling to accept frontbench roles should ask whether they are “capable” of standing at the next election.
Scottish Tory education spokeswoman Ms Smith, who managed Mr Fraser’s leadership campaign, successfully resisted Ms Davidson’s attempts to move her to the rural affairs portfolio and insisted on staying in her current front-bench brief following a meeting between the pair.
Tory officials were last night unable to name a full front-bench team ahead of today’s First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood, where Ms Davidson will face Alex Salmond for the first time at the parliamentary despatch box.
Ms Davidson has also rejected an offer made by Mr Fraser to run the party’s campaign against independence, with the leader insisting on taking control of the key policy area herself in the lengthy run-up to a referendum.
Mr Fraser, who based his leadership campaign on a controversial proposal for a Scottish centre-right split from the UK Tories, is understood to have been offered one of the key Tory front-bench portfolios following two meetings with Ms Davidson. He has instead accepted an offer to serve as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s economy, energy and tourism committee, a role he will perform alongside his back-bench duties at Holyrood.
Mr Fraser will succeed Lothians MSP Gavin Brown, another one of his backers during the leadership election, as convenor of the committee.
Mr Fraser would not comment on his talks with Ms Davidson, but a Scottish Tory source told The Scotsman yesterday that he had quit as deputy leader to avoid becoming a “distraction” to Ms Davidson’s leadership.
Ms Davidson had previously attacked Mr Fraser’s proposals for a renamed and rebranded centre-right party in Scotland as a “destabilising distraction” during the bitter leadership contest to succeed Annabel Goldie.
The Scottish Tory source said: “I think Murdo felt that he would have got in [Ms Davidson’s] way if he had agreed to serve as deputy leader.
“He doesn’t want to be a distraction and he wants her to have some space to successfully lead the party in Scotland.
“But there’s also the talks between Ruth and Liz Smith, who has effectively got the new leader to back down in a way that would have never happened under Annabel Goldie and David McLetchie.”
The source said that former presiding officer Mr Fergusson had been approached to serve as Ms Davidson’s deputy leader, but that he had declined the offer because of his “very different views” on key issues to the new leader such as her opposition to handing further powers to Holyrood beyond the provisions made in the Scotland Bill.
However, Mr Fergusson said he could “guarantee” that he had not been asked to serve as deputy leader by Ms Davidson. The former presiding officer, who served in the post between 2007 and 2011, declined to say whether he would be part of the Scottish Conservatives’ front-bench team at Holyrood.
Mr Carlaw is set to be handed the post of deputy leader, despite finishing in third place behind Mr Fraser in the four-way leadership election. The West of Scotland MSP said it was for “the leader to make such comments”, when he was asked about his new role as deputy.
Central Scotland MSP Margaret Mitchell, who finished fourth in the contest, has also declined to say what her role might be in any Scottish Tory front-bench.
Meanwhile, former Conservative MSP Sir Albert said he was “really disappointed” about the fresh rift among MSPs, just days after Ms Davidson defeated Mr Fraser by more than 500 votes in the final round of the leadership contest.
Sir Albert said: “It’s not just a question of it not being terribly good, it’s also rather unfortunate.
“If people made statements that they would co-operate with the new leader and I’m talking about the losers of the election, then that’s what they should do.
“I would have thought [the other candidates] would all have gone on to support the new leader. Ruth Davidson is entitled to that support.
“It’s disappointing that his has come about and it’s time that the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party got a grip or we’ll end up falling into disrepute.
“I’m really disappointed that Murdo Fraser and Liz Smith turned down those jobs. Tory supporters will say, let’s get people who are prepared to hold office, so my view is that those people who hold a grudge should get rid of that grudge.
“Those holding back from front-bench roles should ask themselves whether they are capable of standing next time, as they are not just turning down Ruth Davidson they are turning down the party.”