by a Newsnet reporter
Murdo Fraser’s controversial proposal to abolish the Scottish Conservatives and replace the party with a new right of centre Unionist party has exposed deep divisions within the party about its response to continuing electoral defeat in Scotland.
Speaking about his proposals yesterday, Mr Fraser said: “I think it’s time we launched a new, progressive, centre-right party with a distinct Scottish identity. One that would have a partnership with the UK Conservative party, and in other respects be operationally independent. I think that would be much more attractive to many people in Scotland who share our values.
“We’d be able to elect far more MPs to the House of Commons to support a future Conservative government than the one we have.”
Some senior figures in the party have come out openly in support of the move, which is understood to count on the tacit support of Prime Minister David Cameron. Malcolm Rifkind, formerly a Scottish Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, said that the party needed to change, adding: “I think that what Murdo Fraser is saying is very refreshing. In broad terms, I welcome it.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “One of the things I’ve learnt as a politician from Scotland, but representing an English constituency is that the reality of devolution means that you should allow the party in Scotland to determine its own destiny.”
Defence Secretary Liam Fox, another Conservative from Scotland in a safe English constituency, said: “It’s a necessary follow-on from the process of devolution. It’s a debate which the party in Scotland needs to have and it should not be dictated by the party in Westminster.”
However other senior Conservatives have reacted angrily to the proposed move, which will only come into effect should Mr Fraser win the Scottish Conservative leadership election due to be held next month.
David Mundell, the only Tory MP in Scotland, flatly rejected the idea, saying: “I will take a very great deal of convincing that by simply having a separate party in Scotland that will resolve the electoral issues that we face. I think it is quite a contradiction to be pledged to the continuance of the United Kingdom, to the concept of Great Britain, and then to present yourself as a separate party.” Mr Mundell added that that Mr Fraser’s idea was “simplistic”.
The plan has also been ferociously attacked by former Conservative Scottish Secretary of State Michael Forsyth who denounced it as nationalist appeasement saying: “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.”
Conservative MSPs Ruth Davidson and Jackson Carlaw have both confirmed that they will stand against Murdo Fraser for the leadership, and stated their strong opposition to the rebranding measure. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Ms Davidson said she would defend the present party, adding: “I am proud to be a Scottish Conservative and Unionist. This is a destabilising distraction that will be welcomed by no one more than Alex Salmond.”
The plan has also been criticised by the Conservatives’ political opponents. Labour shadow Scottish secretary Ann McKechin said: “Murdo Fraser’s scheme is doomed to fail because it is his hard-line and right-wing policies that alienate people, not his party’s internal workings.”
SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell said that the plan to replace the party with an entirely new organisation meant that the Tories in Scotland had “finally realised their redundancy”, adding, “The announcement is the final death knell for Scottish Toryism and hugely embarrassing for David Cameron, coming during the Prime Minister’s weekend visit to Scotland.”
SNP MSP Joan McAlpine compared the plan to the Royal Mail’s name change to Consigniain 2001. Although it was launched as an attempt to be seen as “modern and meaningful”, the process led to a record financial loss of £1.1bn while post offices continued to lose business. The name and brand of the Royal Mail was soon resurrected.
Ms McAlpine pointed out: “There is also a deep contradiction in Fraser’s proposal. He says the new party will reinvigorate and defend the Union. Yet he believes that while independence will benefit the Scottish Tories, it will be bad for Scotland.”