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From left: Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw, Margaret Mitchell

David Torrance: State of Play redux

[From left: Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson, Jackson Carlaw, Margaret Mitchell]

The deadline has now come and gone for candidates to declare for the Scottish Conservative leadership race. In a campaign full of surprises there was another at the eleventh hour: Central Scotland MSP Margaret Mitchell threw her hat into the ring, explaining that no other candidate reflected “her views”. Ironically, by further fragmenting the anti-Murdo Fraser vote she actually increases his chances of winning, a tactical paradox not lost on Lord Forsyth, who apparently urged Mitchell not to stand.

Still, Margaret’s candidacy adds yet another dimension to the constitutional aspect of this contest: while Ruth Davidson calls the Scotland Bill “a line in the sand”, Fraser hints at going much further and Jackson Carlaw advocates a rather contrived UK Act of Parliament to regulate future constitutional change, Mitchell wants to go backwards. The Scotland Bill, she argues, is just a kneejerk response from the chattering classes to the rise of the SNP. She wants a referendum, and is certain it would be voted down.

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, there are indications that Murdo Fraser is finding his “grand design” (more financial devolution, disbanding the party, and so on) a harder sell than he anticipated at the grassroots level. At the first formal leadership hustings in Inverness on Saturday he endured largely sceptical questioning from members. Although Fraser handled most responses well, he appeared shaken. An “exit poll” conducted by ToryHoose, meanwhile, found that Carlaw won hands down in terms of performance.

Fraser has, however, undoubtedly won the media war (although how many normal Tory members are paying attention to that is another matter) – notwithstanding increasingly personal attacks from Team Ruth. On Sunday John Lamont – Davidson’s campaign manager – got stuck into Murdo via ToryHoose, arguing that he ought to reflect on his own electoral record before “attacking” the party he wants to lead.

Furthermore, Lamont supplied ToryHoose with figures, apparently demonstrating that at the last three Scottish Parliament elections Fraser’s personal vote had declined more steeply than the Scottish Tory Party’s as a whole. The most striking was that for May 2011, in which Lamont claims Murdo’s vote dropped by 5.29 per cent, only that figure is open to interpretation. It only works if you take the 2007 constituency vote for North Tayside of 30.2 per cent and subtract the 2011 regional vote in Perthshire North of 24.91 per cent.

In short, Lamont isn’t comparing like with like: he’s compared a new, different seat with an old one, and the 2007 constituency vote in that old seat with the regional vote under the new boundaries in 2011. There’s an added irony. Lamont has made much of the fact that the party ought to back a “winner”, i.e. an MSP who has managed to gain a constituency rather than a list seat, yet a) he’s now backing Ruth Davidson, who’s a list MSP and b) when Lamont stood for the House of Commons in 2010 (interestingly, at that point he was prepared to abandon Holyrood for the green benches) he was decisively defeated by the Lib Dem candidate Michael Moore. And, come to think of it, Davidson directed her ambition southwards following the 2009 Glasgow North-East by-election, only settling on Scotland having failed to secure an English nomination.

Now, Lamont’s line of attack might be credible if he himself was running for the leadership, but he’s not. Indeed, shortly after this May’s SNP victory Lamont told the Scotsman he was “considering the options” about standing as leader. “People have talked to me about standing, and I’m flattered by the calls I’ve had,” he continued. “People say we need a winner. Someone who can win a constituency and not just list votes.” But when Annabel Goldie announced she was standing down, Lamont said he would rather concentrate on his constituency. One of the biggest mysteries of this leadership campaign is why a proven “winner” is not himself in the race to succeed Goldie. (Goldie, incidentally, also intervened on Sunday – criticising Murdo’s plan to recast the party – despite maintaining she would not get involved.)

But then the first casualty in leadership elections is truth. To his credit, Fraser has not resorted to personal attacks (although he may come to realise that negative campaigning does have a place) and Lamont’s analysis, of course, does contain a grain of truth. Jackson Carlaw, meanwhile, has revived Michael Crow’s old idea of culling any Tory list MSP after two terms if they haven’t managed to win a constituency seat. I’ve always thought this was barking: not only would it likely unseat Carlaw and, indeed, Davidson, but had Derek Brownlee – the undisputed star of the group – survived the election, he too would have been sent packing in a few years’ time.

There are also signs of nerves emanating from the Fraser camp. On Sunday they brought forward the publication of segments from Murdo’s hustings presentation warning Tory members they had to “get real” about the party’s situation, while today (Monday 27 September) party grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind was called upon to give Fraser a slightly more ringing endorsement (the former Foreign Secretary had already given his blessing in a newspaper interview), perhaps with a view to countering Lord Forsyth’s backing for Ruth Davidson.

Still, it’s a long campaign, and – if you’ll pardon the cliché – there should still be everything to play for. This contest is uncharted territory; Scottish Tory members have never before been asked to select their leader. That, combined with the rather curious AV system used in the election, makes the lay of the land, at least at this point, very hard to read. I still think it’s between Murdo and Ruth, with a slim chance that Jackson may come through the middle on the basis of transfers. Fraser has a grand plan while “fresh face” Davidson says she’ll try harder at the next election. Will either pitch be enough? We’ll find out in five weeks’ time.

Posted by David Torrance

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