The next leader of the Scottish Conservatives will be announced on St Valentine’s Day, though there hasn’t been much love in the air during this campaign.
The contest between Jackson Carlaw and Michelle Ballantyne has been unnecessarily acrimonious and key figures on either side given to intemperate outbursts. More than enough knives have been plunged into backs and, come Friday, the only sharp objects on the move should be Cupid’s arrows.
The rancour of the past few weeks has been largely about personalities and positioning. There is no major ideological schism separating the two leads in the drama. Ballantyne is a Brexiteer and retro-Thatcherite while Carlaw was a young Right-winger who became wetter than a weekend in Blackpool as the years passed. Originally a Remainer, he eventually made his peace with Brexit. There are certainly differences of opinion but nothing to justify the bare-knuckle combat into which this poll has descended.
Much of the argle-bargle began with Ballantyne’s criticism of the Tories’ general election campaign, headed up by Carlaw and which saw the party lose more than half its seats. ‘We need to win,’ she said, ‘and to win we have to change people’s minds and to change people’s minds we have to move forward’. She also referred to Carlaw as ‘a safe pair of hands’ and added that the party needed more than that.
The election, she argued, boldly, was ‘a golden opportunity’ but ‘our party in Scotland lacked vision and ambition’ and had ‘failed to put forward credible proposals for fixing the public services that have been grossly mismanaged by the SNP’. A ‘policy vacuum’ had ‘handicapped our party’ but she would fill it, not least when it came to the Union. ‘I am a proud Unionist,’ she wrote in a newspaper op-ed, ‘but I did not get into politics to talk endlessly about the constitution.’
Team Carlaw’s response was rash and heavy-handed. The candidate marched up to the Holyrood press pack, flanked by MSP supporters like burly enforcers, and let into his opponent. He accused her of ‘attacks on colleagues, on our activists’ for criticising his campaign and, in reference to the fact that Ballantyne’s support has come from the grassroots rather than the MSP group, snipped: ‘If I had the confidence of nobody at all, it would cause me to pause.’
Carlaw’s reaction made him seem imperious, affronted that anyone would dare question him. He behaved as though Ballantyne had spoken out of turn at a coronation rather than made her case in a democratic election. The election campaign was light on policy and vision and did put too much emphasis on the constitution. In framing legitimate criticisms as ‘attacks’ on party activists, Carlaw pulled a trick straight out of the Nicola Sturgeon playbook. He was, in essence, accusing Ballantyne of ‘talking down’ the Scottish Conservatives.
This aloof attitude was only compounded by reports that Carlaw was preparing to sack Ballantyne from the frontbench should he win. One newspaper quoted a source as saying: ‘Jackson values loyalty above all else. If Michelle thinks that he will look at the result, think she has done well and give her a promotion she should think again.’
That is among the most spectacularly stupid statements I have encountered from a campaign, and I know something about spectacular stupidity: I have covered multiple Scottish Labour leadership elections. It made Carlaw sound like the godfather of a small-time crime syndicate threatening to whack a consigliere for criticising his bulk purchase of see-through balaclavas. If Carlaw is minded to sack anyone, he should start with whoever gave that quote.
There was a chance here to show the country what the Scottish Conservatives believe and what the party wants to do for Scotland. Instead, the country saw a rabble tearing lumps out of themselves like a herd of wildcats in the midst of a flea outbreak. Neither candidate comes out of this boorach looking good.
However, no one can credibly propose that the lapses of the past month have rendered this an evenly-matched contest. Frustration with tone and tactics is no excuse for false equivalence. Politics is a serious business and there is only one serious candidate in this election, someone with the experience and political nous to lead the Tories into next year’s election.
That election is set to be the most difficult the party has faced since 2011, when its constituency share of the vote fell below 15 per cent for the first time. Most media attention of late has been on polls showing majority support for Scexit, but another finding demands attention.
Two polls in January, by Panelbase and Survation, put the SNP on 50 and 51 per cent respectively on the Holyrood first-past-the-post ballot, the first time since March 2017 that the Nationalists have polled so high. These figures mark an increase on the 46.5 per cent the party secured in 2016, itself their best-ever showing in constituency votes. If the SNP hits or passes the 50 per cent point next May, it will be the fourth consecutive election in which it has surpassed its previous showing.
Few parties can sustain themselves in government this long and even fewer can do so while increasing their level of support. Thatcher’s Tories couldn’t; not even Blair’s New Labour could.
An SNP that wins an overall majority of votes poses some unavoidable questions. Would (or could) the UK Parliament continue to refuse another referendum in such circumstances? (The Prime Minister’s letter to Nicola Sturgeon did not cover this scenario and there are some weak-kneed Tories who believe it is democratically insupportable to keep saying No.)
Just as important is the matter of Scotland’s political pluralism. A dominant-party system is still a democracy but not always an ideal one. If the SNP is able to remain in government for decades — like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party or Iceland’s Independence Party — the lack of democratic competition is liable to lead to bad policymaking and poor accountability. A healthy democracy is one where the government knows it could be out on its ear next time round.
The ideal person to stop this eventuality was Ruth Davidson, who, with a fair wind, could have done real electoral damage to the SNP. Alas, she is no longer an option and Holyrood 2021 is now a damage-limitation exercise for the Tories themselves. They need to hold on to as many of their 2016 seats as possible to tee up a credible challenge in 2026.
Michelle Ballantyne has stepped up and shown what she is made of, and while that is admirable, what she is made of is not the stuff of leadership. Turning up to your campaign launch promising a new policy on tuition fees just as soon as you’ve come up with it is not the stuff of leadership. Believing a Brexit election was a ‘golden opportunity’ to show Scots what the Tories offered them is not the stuff of leadership. Ballantyne is genuine and committed to the cause, but she is not a leader.
Tory Party members are voting now but next May the country does the voting and the country is very different to the Tory membership. The party needs a leader who can reach out to those who have never voted Conservative, to those who would balk at the mere suggestion. It needs a leader with a proven track record of holding Nicola Sturgeon to account at First Minister’s Questions and putting pressure on a government positively allergic to scrutiny.
Jackson Carlaw is not a perfect candidate and his leadership campaign has left a lot to be desired. But of the two contenders on offer, he is demonstrably the most capable. Carlaw works hard, he gets things done, he keeps the First Minister on her toes, and he appreciates the need to overhaul and rebuild his party.
If he isn’t victorious in this Valentine’s poll, the Tories will be sending Nicola Sturgeon the political equivalent of a dozen red roses.