The Party's over

The Party's over

by Brian Monteith
article from Tuesday 22, November, 2011
WELL, IT’S BEEN two weeks since Ruth Davidson’s election as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and it has not been an auspicious start.

No sooner had she been elected than she sacked the Party Chairman Andrew Fulton and replaced him with David Mundell, probably the most divisive figure in the party, with immediate effect.

This of course cleared the way for the immediate re-appointment of Ramsay Jones as the Tory spin-doctor with the investigation into his help for Davidson apparently clearing him. As Annabel Goldie once said, “I smell fish” and we all know fish rot from the head down.

So two decisions that would hardly do anything to unite the bruised party behind her – what next the humiliation of her opponents?

Well Davidson tried but on this point she failed – and miserably.

Desperately rushing to Downing Street for a photocall with the prime minister she left behind her group of demoralised MSPs and the need to pull them together with the appointment of briefs that would make them feel valued.

On returning she tried to humiliate Murdo Fraser by keeping him as Deputy – a position that was clearly untenable for him to hold under the circumstances and showed her lack of experience in the chamber where he would have been ridiculed and she would have suffered regular shouts of “watch your back”. Instead Murdo had made it known he could help Davidson by running the campaign against the break-up of the UK, something that would keep him out of her path and which in policy terms they could broadly agree on, but this would keep Fraser in the public eye and she was advised against it. Davidson decided she needed this role for herself.

Having already been Education and Health spokesman and, his offer being turned down, Fraser had no alternative but to go to the backbenches,. This would be spun later as him being unwilling to help, but the offer was there, it was Davidson that rejected it.

Next Davidson tried to demote Fraser’s campaign manager Liz Smith from Education to rural affairs, but Smith refused – clearly willing to go to the backbenches with Murdo if she was moved. This would look too dangerous and might have encouraged others to do so; certainly others were in a recalcitrant mood following the reappearance of Ramsay Jones. Davidson backed down and left Liz Smith alone – but it was now an open secret and Davidson’s reshuffle was looking like an utter shambles.

Flattered by the idea that he could later be lined up to become Party Chairman Jackson Carlaw agreed to become Davidson’s deputy, despite close friends telling him he should decline. That done the other positions became easier to accommodate but the damage to her reputation had been done and it was still the first week.

Other episodes added to the calamitous nature of her triumph. Davidson was quizzed on her support for bringing back prescription charges and asked at what level of income people would have to start paying – a question that flummoxed her and revealed a poor grasp of policy. The dog in the street could have told her that there never has been an income threshold – prescription charges were never means tested but given free by what is called the passport system – if you are on a benefit, in full time education, under 16, pregnant, blind etc. etc then you had a passport to free prescriptions – otherwise whatever your income you paid. The failure to grasp such a simple concept was damning. Davidson’s minders had better start the media training for the media professional, and fast.

Finally, as if to rub salt into the wounds of the 47.5% of voting members that supported Fraser, Davidson sent out a letter to everyone first class thanking them for electing her – no recognition that she had only a third of the members behind her, no recognition that the majority were against or indifferent to her – just a presumption she was the chosen one. One member I know cancelled his subs the day he received it. He won’t be the last.

What Davidson’s election does for the next five years is close the door on a new centre-right party in Scotland. Unless Davidson suffers such a bad first year and is forced out – and I do not expect that to be allowed by London – then the necessary change is not going to happen this side of any referendum on independence. As Murdo Fraser obviously deduced the referendum must now become the central focus for right-leaning unionists be they inside or outside the Tory Party tent.

For all my criticism of her poor start Davidson should be given time and support to show that youth and dynamism can change her party’s fortunes, for those are pretty much her sole strong points.

On a personal level Davidson must be congratulated for she has come a long way in the last few years. Only joining the party two years ago she was thrust into the limelight as the Tory candidate in the 2009 Glasgow North East by-election to offer a fresh face with a media savvy approach. She polled a poor 5.2 percent, only 62 votes ahead of the BNP on 4.9 percent, but saved the party from the embarrassment of losing its deposit. At last year’s general election she managed 5.3 percent but slipped to fourth behind the Liberal democrat.

Between the two elections she had sought the nomination for Bromsgrove when Julie Kirkbride announced her resignation but she was passed over. Looking to the Holyrood elections Davidson secured the candidacy for Glasgow Kelvin but was ranked second on the regional list by party members, a fate that guaranteed she would have to wait another four years.

Then came 2011 and what a year it has been. As the election kicked off the Conservative establishment removed Malcolm Macaskill from the head of the list by e-mail in circumstances that still remain shrouded in mystery and speculation. True, Macaskill had a troubled financial history in the past but he had always been open about it and the party had not prevented him being a candidate for Westminster or Holyrood on three subsequent occasions. Although the Tory vote in the Glasgow region fell to an all time low of 6.1 percent it was still enough to return Davidson as one of the seven list members.

It had all been a tough learning curve and does suggest she is a fighter – more a Joe Frazier than a Mohammed Ali – but Frazier did have his victories. Finally she was elected and because of her breezy personality and the familiarity of being in front the cameras was soon tipped for the future – by which most people meant in five or ten years time, not six months.

When in May Goldie announced it was time to give up her crochet needles, many thought John Lamont would stand as the establishment candidate in an effort to prevent Fraser succeeding as leader, for fear that he would adopt a more obviously independent and resolutely Scottish approach. Davidson’s fortune was still in when Lamont made an injudicious speech about faith schools that broke with party policy and countered the Tory ideal of parents choosing their children’s schools for themselves. Despite being heavily courted and talked-up Lamont displayed a glass jaw and withdrew.

The establishment’s attention switched to Davidson – it was a long shot but she has drive and a CV showing more life experience than the prime minister – and for modernisers the cachet of being gay – a counter-intuitive idea to most people who think Conservatives must be, well, socially conservative.

I should at this point reveal the unspoken truth that anyone active in British politics knows, there are more gay people in the Conservative Party than probably the other parties put together – it’s just that no-one makes a song and dance about it. Why would they, the market is blind to personal sexuality and most Tories think it matters not a jot to one’s politics.

When the leadership election was launched it was taken by the scruff of its neck by Murdo Fraser’s frank analysis that the Scottish Tory party was not fit for purpose and that he would create a new party that could give the wider right-of-centre constituency a fresh start.

Davidson was by now being implored by the vested interests within the old establishment to stand and save the likes of David Mundell, Lords Strathclyde and Forsyth and the 13th Marquess of Lothian, more commonly know as Michael Ancram, from being marginalised within the Scottish party. She accepted the offer but thanks to Fraser’s boldness was no longer the moderniser but the arch-traditionalist.

On Friday, after a long and often terse campaign, it was announced she had triumphed with 52.5 percent of the 63.4 percent of members that voted backing her. It is a precarious mandate for she was supported by less than half of the members; more than 36% of the membership never voted – more than the 33% that took the trouble to back her.

She has at last enjoyed a victory of her own but the real job begins now and no matter how much support she receives from Mundell and Lamont (now Tory Business manager – the equivalent of Chief Whip) it will be upon her that the responsibility will be placed.

To date all that we know about Davidson has been the repetition of platitudes based upon her youth and commitment to radical change. Her age is beyond dispute, but so is her inexperience. The radical change appears to be using social media (which is of course open to all the other parties too) and introducing the recommendations of Lord Sanderson’s report that will see constituency associations either disappear or become emasculated – an admission that membership numbers are more than halving every decade.

At the current rate of decline you will be able to get ever Tory member into Edinburgh’s Playhouse Theatre by 2020, by 2030 they will number fewer than the crowd watching Hamilton Accies on a Saturday.

With the dwindling membership comes a falling activist base. To deliver a revived dynamic party Davidson must therefore drive membership numbers up and get a larger share of them to come out and help. A membership drive has been announced but how this will be funded remains to be seen. In a year’s time it will be a fair question to ask what the membership numbers are to see if Davidson’s dynamism is indeed the answer.

Then there is the identity issue. This is wrapped up in the inheritance of the past that Davidson, born in 1978, cannot be blamed for. It was not Davidson that delivered the Poll Tax or introduced the cold economic reality that closed most of Scotland’s mines or steel mills – her first vote in a general election vote was not until 1997 when the Tories were wiped out in Scotland.

Her promise to have policy commissions on business and fishing offers nothing new – such is the self-imposed straightjacket her party will not dislocate its shoulder to escape from. More powers that will help business? Davidson has ruled them out by saying the current Scotland Bill goes far enough. Giving Scotland its own fishing policy? That would mean Britain leaving the EU. I don’t think David Cameron will welcome that idea.

To establish a Scottish as well as a British identity Davidson has to show she runs the party, not Cameron (which is why rushing to London for that photocall sent the wrong message), and that she puts Scotland’s interests in Britain first. We have heard nothing of how she will achieve this, only Fraser had offered a solution. Goldie accepted without a protest the English Oak as her party’s symbol, will Davidson challenge anything from London or do anything differently?

She also has to find the money to run the party. Sir Jack Harvie said he would not help fundraise for a new party – but many of the past Tory financiers backed Fraser and will not now be taking tables at his dinners. Where will Sir Jack find the millions needed when the income plummets? Only Cameron’s London Central Office can bale her out and who pays the piper…

The irony of the leadership result is that Davidson would stand a far better chance of dealing with all of the problems of a falling membership, dwindling number of activists, policies relevant to Scotland, campaign finances and a damaged if not toxic brand if she had the new party that Murdo Fraser was proposing. Indeed a new party would have been the obvious place for a 32 year-old lesbian kickboxing Sunday school teacher – along with all the many people that support right of centre policies but slam the door on canvassers’ faces when they finally mention the word Conservative. Davidson would have been an obvious leader for such a new party – but she rejected it.

Not one of her challenges will be easier to deal with using the existing moribund institution.

Easier to find new members, activists and candidates for a new party? Tick. Easier to raise funds for a new party? Tick. Easier to develop homegrown policies for a new party? Tick. Easier to allow even old faces to shed their skin accepting the mistakes of the past and be reborn through a baggage-free new party? Tick.

Unfortunately Davidson has turned her face against these advantages. How she will now attract the many people I met who had never voted Conservative in the past and held little interest in so doing in the future continues to baffle me. Shouting louder and working harder just cannot be enough.

On the eve of her election there was a council by-election in the Highlands after a Labour councillor was jailed for fiddling his expenses. The Tory candidate, a keen and respected local lad shouted loudly and worked like a Trojan. He put out more leaflets than his opponents, indeed Labour didn’t even put out any at all. He came fourth.

This is the reality of the Tory position. Next May the Conservative Councillors face the same prospect and it will be the first real challenge by which Davidson’s youthful, dynamic shout louder and work harder solution will be tested. Forget how she performs at First Minister’s Questions, it matters not one whit, forget how she does in debates, on committees and running her group – only those that play in the Holyrood village give these any credence. It is the messages that she puts out and the positions she takes that will determine the perception of her party in the public mind and thus its fate at the ballot box.

The party’s decline has been masked by the proportional voting systems for Holyrood and our councils and is even worse than the electoral results suggest. Having only one member at Westminster is no fluke for the party of Mundell is truly despised in Scotland. You don’t quite feel that when inside Holyrood but many people I know don’t have another Tory in their workplace.

Being proud of her party, as Davidson repeatedly tells us she is, when you haven’t been at the coal face of Scottish politics for twenty-eight of the last thirty years will count for naught with the Scottish electorate. I’m sure Ruth Davidson was proud when she stood and lost twice in Glasgow North East but it didn’t get her even six percent. As a currency, pride in being Scottish Conservative and Unionist has been so debased it is practically worthless.

I wish Ruth Davidson well, I really do, it was my party for some thirty years and it remains for the moment the only serious advocate of centre-right policies, but I cannot help think that with such an inauspicious start the task is beyond her. I look forward to be proven wrong.

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