IN THE Midland Hotel in Manchester three weeks ago, Ruth Davidson and Murdo Fraser were sitting side by side, sharing the stage with fellow Tory leadership candidates Jackson Carlaw and Margaret Mitchell. The only joint-hustings of the campaign was coming to a close.
But, unlike the leadership debates involving the candidates for Prime Minister last year, or the ones for First Minister earlier this spring, as the debate came to a close there were no handshakes at the end. Davidson and Fraser simply got up and walked off to their respective friends in the audience.
The Scottish Conservative and Unionist party is not very united at present. All leadership elections are tense affairs; fighting a colleague for the top job is always going to lead to more rancour than fighting a political opponent.
But, even by those standards, the campaign to succeed Annabel Goldie has been noticeable for its bitterness, and the widespread accusations of dirty tricks, deliberate smearing and bias.
The bitterness has been brewing for some time. In March, Davidson, a talented openly gay former BBC reporter, did not even look like she would make it as an MSP, never mind as leader. Trying to get a seat in Glasgow, she failed to beat Malcolm Macaskill, another candidate, in the race to top the party’s list rankings in the city.
Then, however, newspaper reports rehashed financial difficulties that Macaskill had previously fallen into. The party’s chairman Andrew Fulton announced he had been deselected. It handed Davidson her new job.
The row has bred deep resentment – prompting claims from Macaskill’s friends that the issue of his finances had been deliberately dragged up to help the popular 32-year-old, who had impressed party chiefs when standing at the Glasgow North East by-election.
Macaskill is still clearly angry – turning up at a hustings event in Glasgow last week to harangue Davidson about her dealings. It has sowed the seeds for some of what has followed.
Davidson finally confirmed she was standing in late summer. Then Fraser upped the ante even further by announcing that if he won, he planned to dissolve the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party and create a new party in its place – thereby ensuring that the race was not just about the choice of captain, but about the ship as well.
With Carlaw making up the third genuine contender (MSP Margaret Mitchell is not seen as having a chance), the campaign proper began.
Each candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of £60,000 during the campaign. Details about who has donated to each campaign are only released after it is finished. Meanwhile, there are strict rules about how candidates can approach members. The party, meanwhile, is responsible for sending out one leaflet per candidate to all members. Apart from that, the only chance the candidates have of getting through to their electorate is through a series of hustings and via the media. It is through the latter that the warfare has been traded.
Davidson’s campaign manager, MSP John Lamont, set things off by attacking Fraser’s personal record, noting how his vote in the Perthshire seat where he has stood in the last three Parliamentary elections has declined more steeply than the Scottish Conservatives as a whole. The Fraser camp was furious at what they saw as an inaccurate and below the belt assault. But the damage had been done. The subsequent month has seen a welter of stories appearing about Davidson suggesting she has been given an unfair helping hand to win.
Her opponents point out that she previously worked for Annabel Goldie. They also claim she is London’s candidate of choice – one is pointing out to a meeting she had with the party’s co-chairman Andrew Feldman earlier in the summer, one not offered to any of the others. Then it emerged that, on 18 September, the party’s chief communication director, Ramsay Jones, visited Davidson at her flat.
For her detractors, this was another sign that Central Office in Edinburgh was on her side. Jones and Davidson are old friends, it is understood; the spin doctor had encouraged her to join the party and pursue a career in politics. Davidson’s supporters insist there was therefore nothing wrong in two friends meeting up, and that he was not giving her an official helping hand. But that is not the way Fraser and others have seen it.
Davidson’s aides now argue that she is the victim of a deliberate smear campaign. Davidson has vociferously denied claims, presumed to emanate from her rivals’ camps, that officials at the party have given her access to party member e-mail addresses, in contravention of the rule-book. A friend of Fraser’s claims: “There is a blind eye being turned to Ruth.”
It has now become a tit-for-tat war. Sources within Carlaw’s camp are pointing to e-mails they have received from Davidson publicising her campaign – which they claim is evidence she has been given their addresses. But then people close to Davidson suggest Fraser has done likewise – and how members have received e-mails from Fraser’s colleagues from their parliamentary accounts (again, a breach of the rules).
The overall impression is that, having surged to the front, and with Fraser’s campaign under pressure over his call to disband the party, the gloves have come off. Probes into Davidson are said to include inquiries into her educational qualifications.
A source close to Davidson says: “Some of the tactics that have been used to smear her have been absolutely pathetic. They have backfired on those who have perpetrated them. It smacks of desperation.”
Party figures with sympathies to both Fraser and Davidson say that the in-fighting has reached such an intense level that it is unlikely the pair can smooth things over once the fight is over. “There is no way they can work together,” says one party source. “There are people around her already thinking, hey, this is my ticket,” says another source.
Carlaw, who could come through the middle, has claimed he will be the unity candidate. He has said he will work with Fraser. But relations between him and Davidson are known to be dreadful.
The hope of party grandees will be that, once the result is in, the bitterness of the election campaign can be forgotten and the party can face the bigger challenges it needs to do – like fighting the referendum campaign. But given the amount of blood spilt in this campaign, it suggests that the wounds will take quite some time to heal.