The decision to host this year’s conference at Murrayfield unsurprisingly coincided with analogies of a team ‘on the up’ with the Tories focused on coming second in this May’s contest, rather than collecting the wooden spoon. But will the EU ref overshadow the efforts of ‘Team Ruth’?
Despite the latest polls indicating otherwise, there was a controlled message from the party leadership to its activists that the party could become the official opposition at Holyrood and overtake Labour if it appeals to its traditional voter base. Key to this is knocking on doors and spreading the message – not something that the party has done with much success, according to recent polls.
You can always tell when the Prime Minister is about to arrive at Scottish Tory Conference – the agenda is quickly amended (this year Jackson Carlaw’s speech congratulating retiring MSPs was bumped) and special branch storms the conference arena as Dave arrives to the podium for a quick ten minute speech.
The PM has been putting in the miles this year and, while always a challenge to disguise the fact he is shooting in and out, he delivered a well-crafted speech articulating the case for a strong campaign at Holyrood – more on message with Ruth Davidson’s agenda than in previous years. Europe was mentioned at the end, but this year, unlike 2014, Scotland is less of a problem for the Prime Minister, he can bank on a majority of influential members to be ‘remainers’.
The candidates showcase in the morning gave a useful insight into some new potential MSPs, especially those high on the list in the Highlands & Islands. Each was given two minutes to outline how they would challenge the SNP Government. Sir Edward Mountain, from Inverness and Nairn branch, spoke at first hand of the problems caused by the single-farm payment with the blame for late payments laid squarely at the feet of Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead. Ruth’s aim to get fresh blood into the party did come across in the enthusiasm of those speaking. However, the number of white, middle class men outnumbered the number of women candidates and ethnic minorities considerably.
The fringes this year were dominated by the EU referendum, putting many MSPs and candidates in the uncomfortable position of having to declare their position. Perhaps the best attended was the Daily Telegraph fringe, hosted by Alan Cochrane, who failed to secure a balanced panel with three ‘remainers’ much to the annoyance of the audience. Alex Johnstone MSP, John Lamont MSP and the very popular Prof Adam Tomkins (standing on the Glasgow regional list) each articulated a case for staying in and supporting the Prime Minister (who had by now rushed off ). Despite the party leadership trying to ensure that the EU referendum debate is handled respectfully, it didn’t take long for difficult questions to come from the audience, most of whom were pretty vexed and animated, wanting a barny more than a sensible debate. Roughly the audience was split 50/50 but the tone of the argument wasn’t constructive and the threat to party unity over the next 60 days and thereafter was highlighted.
Ruth Davidson’s speech was fine and she is one of few party leaders in Scotland to speak honestly about the potential of new powers and the limits the party of low taxation can promise given the state of the nation’s finances and public services. ‘Team Ruth’ had best hope that voters can see through the ‘evil Tory’ moniker and take its policies as an alternative to the leftist standpoint of both the SNP and Labour to give them the chance of growing their Holyrood base rather than just protecting their numbers. With new powers over tax and borrowing powers coming soon, this message could define the elections giving them hope of doing just that – shame that the debate on Europe might overshadow this opportunity.