It is the ultimate detoxification strategy. Murdo Fraser, the frontrunner for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has announced that he will disband the party if he wins the contest next month. The Scottish Tories will be replaced by a new centre-right party that will contest all elections north of the border – council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster.
In a relationship analogous to that between the German CDU and the Bavarian CSU, the new party would be affiliated to the Tories and any MPs elected would take the Conservative whip in the Commons. There is also a historical precedent. Until 1965, when they merged with the Conservative Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Tories were a separate party known as the Unionist Party.
It’s not hard to see why Fraser believes this dramatic step is necessary. The Tories have not managed to win more than one seat in Scotland for 19 years and have haemorraghed votes to the SNP. Fraser’s calculation is that a new party will win the financial support of business leaders reluctant to associate themselves with the Scottish Tories, as well as the electoral support of the country’s middle class.
Whether his strategy will succeed is another matter. It may well be dismissed by voters as a cynical rebranding exercise. “Different name, same shit,” is one slogan you can imagine doing the rounds. The move also has significant and potentially dangerous implications for the Union. In calling for the creation of a new centre-right party, Fraser has effectively conceded that Scotland is a no-go area for the Conservatives. A separate party for a separate country is the conclusion that some will draw. Michael Forsyth, who served as Scottish Secretary from 1995 to 1997, argued: “I think the strategy is one of appeasement of the nationalists and I think it is one that will fail. Any policy which appeases nationalists is damaging to the union by definition.”
But it’s worth noting that Fraser enjoys the support of several senior Conservatives at Westminster, including Francis Maude, who has long argued for a breakaway Scottish party. David Cameron was informed of the plan in advance but intends to remain neutral during the contest.
No one doubts Cameron’s sincerity when he vows to defend the United Kingdom with “every fibre in my body”, but not everyone in his party feels the same way. A 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be “uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent”. This laissez faire attitude is hardly surprising. Of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland that would automatically be lost, 41 are Labour-held but just one is Conservative-held.
But whether Fraser’s plan is enacted or not, it’s clear that Scottish politics, neglected by Fleet Street for so long, is about to become very interesting indeed.