The Scottish Conservative & Unionist party held a leadership hustings in Manchester on Monday. In a hotly contested debate (in an even hotter Midlands Hotel), Murdo Fraser, Ruth Davidson, Margaret Mitchell and Jackson Carlaw entreated an attentive audience to support them in their bids to lead a political party at rock bottom.
In an unscientific exit poll conducted by bloggers Tory Hoose, Mitchell languishes at the bottom with single figure support. She may have come with the biggest banner but left with the biggest mountain to climb. A late entrant to the contest, this is unsurprising. If the 'traditionalists' want to stop Murdo Fraser's radical plan to change the party's name, one (or both) of Mitchell and Carlaw (who polled a healthier 26 per cent) need to withdraw so not to split the vote.
For whilst each candidate tried to stress their unique qualities, in reality Davidson, Mitchell and Carlaw did little beyond define themselves against Fraser. There were smidgens, smudges and fudges of policy but only the provocative Fraser brings decisive change to the table, however misguided it might be to many.
It was Fraser who came out of the hustings with the slenderest of leads - 1 percentage point - over Ruth Davidson, although his younger challenger is a slim bookies' favourite in a tight race.
Davidson is an attractive choice in many ways. She would become, I think, the first gay leader of a political party in the UK, and as Craig Barrett wrote last week, she has an interesting CV - "a Sunday School teacher and a former TA officer". She also managed to get elected earlier this year in Glasgow, of all places. Unlike the other candidates, therefore, she is already a proven winner at the young age of thirty-two.
Yet whilst Davidson has attracted some high profile support, such as the respected John Lamont MSP and Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, it is Murdo Fraser who can count on more Tory MSPs. Were Davidson to win, she could struggle to lead a parliamentary party that wanted someone else. Nevertheless, the recent Sanderson Report envisaged a national leader who would appeal beyond the narrow political base.
Around the conference, however, the Tory grassroots are strangely uninterested. Ask people who they would choose and they struggle to name all of the candidates, proving that it isn't only busy party leaders who forget names. Most have heard of Murdo Fraser's proposal to create a new centre right party and many recoil from the idea, but scarcely care enough to express any preference.
Perhaps that is more remarkable, and for the traditionalists more concerning. The Conservative members here are overwhelmingly English and overwhelmingly uninterested in the Scottish leadership. When pushed, most members disagree with Murdo Fraser, and almost all members support the Union; but the lack of appetite for the contest gives the impression that their Scottish kin are very much already on their own.
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