Scottish Conservatives conference builds on 2016 gains

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It was, as the football commentators used to say, ‘A game of two halves’.

The opening day of conference – Friday – was all about the Prime Minister. This her first chance to make a major policy speech on Scotland and her approach to the defining issue of our age – independence.

The Prime Minister left no-one who heard her speech in any doubt that she is Unionist to the core. She believes passionately and to the tips of her fingers in the United Kingdom and the Acts of Union between its constituent parts.

We might have known that already, as she made her Unionist credentials clear in her first public statement as PM on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, but this was aimed at a very specific audience who she knew would be studying her Glasgow speech in minute detail – the SNP and specifically Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

This speech was all about saying to the Scottish First Minister ‘Push #indyref2 if you want to but you will find me no pushover’. It was Theresa May making clear that if Nationalists expect a British Prime Minister to let them hold another independence referendum at a time of their choosing, with rules of their choosing, then they are mistaken. The rules of engagement have changed and Mrs May is going to be a much tougher opponent than Mr Cameron.

If that was the bad cop, then what about the good cop? Well the Prime Minister appears open to genuine debate on what powers should come to the Scottish Parliament after the UK leaves the EU. She has no intention – as some of the wilder pro-independence commentators have said – of abolishing the Scottish Parliament. But she made a pointed reference to the acts of Parliament establishing Holyrood in the 1990s not taking account of the possibility that the UK might, one day, leave the EU. That, in her view, has to be sorted and it seems that she is willing to work with the SNP Scottish Government on a wider settlement post-Brexit if they put #indyref2 to one side.

Will it work? We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly the rhetoric from Nicola Sturgeon suggests no climbdown on her threat to hold another plebiscite. Quite the opposite in fact.

So what about the second half? Well, this was all about the Conservatives new star striker Ruth Davidson.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent on the field apart from team Captain Davidson. Far from it. What was really apparent both days of conference is that last May’s election has rejuvenated the Scottish Conservatives with a host of new talent who relish the chance to get stuck into SNP opponents who are starting to look a little tired and heavy of foot after a decade in the managerial chair.

Murdo Fraser is clearly relishing his new role as finance spokesman, with rough tackles on the affable, but somewhat lightweight Cabinet Secretary Derek Mackay. He had conference delegates applauding loudly to tales of the hapless Mackay and his knowledge – or lack of – the Laffer curve. With UK public sector net debt at over 80% of GDP, perhaps it’s the opposition that should be questioning the Conservatives’ grasp of economics, but why spoil the fun?

Speaker after speaker from the new intake of MSPs confirmed the impression that this new group is talented and wants to make a difference. It’s hard to argue that with Adam Tomkins on the constitution, Brian Whittle on sport and Peter Chapman on rural affairs and this is clearly a team with knowledge and experience well beyond Holyrood.

So if the PM’s message was ‘I am a committed Unionist and I will not bend to the SNP’, what was the key take away from Ruth Davidson’s conference speech?

On the possibility of #indyref2 she echoed the PM – ‘Most Scots don’t want it so take the threat off the table, Nicola, and get back to the day job.’ That in itself was clearly what conference, and many outside, wanted to hear – but it wasn’t all.

Ruth Davidson went further and put forward her ambition to be the next First Minister of Scotland. The speech set out her plan of action to achieve that goal. She recognised that those Scots who voted Tory in May 2016, many for the first time, had done so on the basis of the Scottish Conservatives replacing Labour as ‘a strong opposition holding the SNP to account.’

Over the next four years, the Scottish Conservatives have to transform themselves into a government in waiting. That will not be easy. While the Conservatives can appeal to a broader base by offering to cut taxes, they have to look closely at those policies that are still unattractive to a majority of Scots. Will the Scottish Conservatives win in 2021 with a promise to reinstate charges for prescriptions and university tuition fees? I think not. A fair dose of political realism will be required and a recognition that some populist measures introduced by the SNP, while they go against the grain of sound financial management, are here to stay.

So my guess is that Ruth’s new teammates will be hard at work over the next few years putting forward alternatives positions across a range of policy positions. Shadow environment secretary Maurice Golden is there already with his paper on the environment and climate change, published just before conference. So this is the time for advocacy organisations across Scotland to get their ideas in front of the Scottish Conservatives. My prediction is they will be pleased to listen.

As I left conference, one delegate summed up the mood: ‘Under Ruth’s leadership, we are a band of happy warriors’. Given the undoubted battles ahead for the Scottish Conservatives, that’s probably not a bad place to be.