by a Newsnet reporter
The forthcoming election for a new leader for Scotland’s dwindling band of Conservatives may well be the last, if favourite candidate for the post Murdo Fraser gets his way. If Mr Fraser wins the election next month, one of his first acts will be to wind up the Conservative party in Scotland and re-establish it as a new centre-right Scottish party.
Mr Fraser, a Conservative list MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, believes the Conservatives are a “toxic brand” in Scotland. The party has been unable to make any significant advances in Scotland since their catastrophic wipe-out in the 1997 Westminster General Election.
Mr Fraser, who is expected to reveal his plan in full on Monday, will propose that the new party would continue in alliance with the Conservatives in England and Wales. Members of the rebranded party would take the Conservative whip in the Westminster Parliament and would be eligible for posts in a Conservative government. David Mundell, currently the sole Scottish Conservative MP, would remain in his junior government post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.
Mr Fraser believes that a newly re-branded party would be able to recover support from Scotland’s business community, whose financial donations to the Conservatives have continued to decline due to the party’s lack of success. Mr Fraser and his supporters believe that a new right of centre Unionist party would be better placed to win back some of the support from the so-called “aspiring classes”, young professionals and younger middle class people, who have recently turned to the SNP in ever increasing numbers.
No name for the new party has been officially revealed. Mr Fraser is expected to launch the party under the slogan “A new party for a new Scotland” when he officially announces his candidacy tomorrow.
It is said that Cameron privately despairs of there ever being a surge in Conservative support in Scotland. Despite the relative personal popularity of out-going Scottish Tory leader Annabel Gouldie, the party signally failed to make any headway in May’s Holyrood election, losing 2 seats and reaching a record low in representation in the Scottish Parliament. During the previous year’s Westminster election, the party had high hopes of obtaining as many as 11 seats over and above the single Scottish Conservative seat, held by David Mundell. Although the party invested significant funds and personnel into the campaign it failed to achieve any of its targets and registered an increase in vote share of less than 1%.
It is claimed that senior English Conservatives have warned the party in Scotland that it must radically reform itself or financial support from south of the Border would dry up.
Sources within the Conservative party have revealed to the Telegraph that Prime Minister David Cameron will remain neutral in the debate within the Scottish Conservatives for fear of being seen as meddling in Scottish affairs. It is an illustration of the hopelessness of the Scottish Conservatives’ plight that the Prime Minister will raise no public objection to the idea of the UK Conservative party being officially broken up.
Mr Fraser claims that he has had detailed talks with senior figures in the Conservative party in England, and that they back his plan. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has previously stated that he would support a new Scottish centre right party.
Michael Forsyth, who was Conservative Scottish Secretary of State in 1997 and presided over the party’s calamitous performance in that year’s election, is deeply opposed to the idea. Speaking to the Telegraph he said:
“I think it is naive and simplistic in the extreme to think that changing the name of the party and cutting it adrift from the rest of the Conservative Party could somehow bring electoral success.
“In fact, electoral success is delivered by having credible policies.
“I think the strategy is one of appeasement of the nationalists and I think it is one that will fail.
“Any policy which appeases nationalists is damaging to the union by definition.”
Mr Fraser’s grand plan hasn’t just fired a bombshell into the Conservatives. Such a radical shake-up of Conservative organisation may make Jim Murphy’s “root and branch” reorganisation of the Labour party in Scotland look like a superficial shuffling of the deckchairs by comparison.
The pressure will now be on Mr Murphy and his review to come up with ideas which will make Labour’s reorganisation appear substantial and meaningful, risking further destabilisation to the already fractious and demoralised party.
Glasgow MSP Ruth Davidson and West of Scotland MSP Carlaw Jackson have also announced their intention to stand for the post of Scottish Conservative leader.
Last night the chatter on Conservative leaning blogs was that Murdo Fraser was probably best placed to win the leadership contest, although locally many Tories share Mr Forsyth’s sympathies and strongly oppose breaking up the UK Conservative party.