How Tories can win back Scots who don’t like Boris, Brexit or both – John McLellan

Tories must learn from last month’s general election victory and the 2017 disaster and focus on developing a winning strategy for next year’s Holyrood elections, rather than detailed policies which can turn into electoral poison, writes John McLellan.
It might seem cynical but simple election messages work (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA Pool/Getty Images)It might seem cynical but simple election messages work (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
It might seem cynical but simple election messages work (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

In a mood of mischief, I momentarily considered trying to test the Labour Party’s membership system to see whether I could get a vote in the leadership contest, but as Corbynism looks here to stay and it’s impossible to tell who is the worst candidate I quickly concluded there wasn’t any point.

In any case, we’re not short of leadership campaigns in the Conservative Party and the process of finding a new Scottish boss is now likely to be a two-horse race between interim leader Jackson Carlaw and his Scottish Parliament colleague Michelle Ballantyne, the former Conservative group leader on Borders Council.

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Holyrood veteran Mr Carlaw is by some way the favourite, having led the party for the past six months, enjoyed a high TV profile in the General Election and visited the party associations during the campaign. But even before the election was called, Ms Ballantyne was getting around association meetings to raise her profile beyond the Borders in anticipation of a contest sooner or later. Her strong promise to the grassroots of more say to local associations has attracted plenty of support, including some of my Edinburgh Council colleagues, so a good contest is pretty much guaranteed.

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Of course, it’s all very well winning the contest, it’s what happens afterwards that matters and there is a very small window for the winner to settle in and produce a strategy that gives the party a realistic chance of overtaking the SNP as the biggest single party at the 2021 Scottish elections. By the time the result is announced on February 14, there will be barely 14 months to go so realistically around seven months to prepare and agree a campaign.

That process has been complicated by this week’s departure of strategy and communications chief Eddie Barnes, who planned to go shortly after Ruth Davidson’s decision to step down but agreed to stay on for the election campaign. The gap he leaves is not the only one from Ruth Davidson’s 2017 high-point, with the previous departures of policy chief Marek Zemanic and the closest the Scottish Conservatives had to the left-field thinking power of Dominic Cummings, Kevin Ancell. So the new leader’s top priority is to assemble his or her version of that team, able to work effectively with whatever comes out of Mr Cummings’ Downing Street “weirdos and misfits” shake-up. Scottish party director Lord Mark McInnes and chairman Rab Forman have vital roles to play and both understand the political reality that the minute the contest is over the focus must be on the wider electorate, not party structures. Partly for this reason, it was accepted that turning Ruth Davidson’s succession into an argument about the Scottish party’s relationship with London would be disastrous. The membership is certainly anxious to be talking about new Conservative policies for the 2021 campaign, an attractive, viable alternative programme for government, and for the 2021 campaign not to rely solely on opposition to a second independence referendum.

But the key lesson from the 2019 triumph was the simplicity of the message and that campaign had learnt from the 2017 disaster; what look like detailed, credible and honest policies on paper can easily become electoral poison. There is more than enough in the SNP’s 14 years of government to attack without giving Nationalists the means to deflect criticism.

We know from the 2019 campaign in Scotland that those Conservatives who turned away did so because they didn’t like Boris Johnson or Brexit or both, but in a different context would return. The context in 2021 will indeed be different; Brexit will be done and, like it or not, the election will be about a second independence referendum first and foremost, then the SNP’s record.

Cynical though it may seem, details of what the new leader would like to do if he or she is First Minister come after understanding what it will take to win. And sticking to it.

Downing Street’s pointless fight with Scottish Press

At a time of unprecedented political change and the perpetual turmoil of the digital communications revolution, the desire of the new UK Government to “slaughter sacred cows” is recognition that so many of the old ways of doing things are no longer suitable. In looking for places to start, Downing Street has chosen what it probably regarded as a soft target by switching the twice-daily official briefings for the Westminster Lobby correspondents from their offices above the Commons to 9 Downing Street.

It’s not difficult to see why this wasn’t thought to be much of a problem because the list of registered Lobby journalists is dominated by heavy representation from the big news organisations; 90 from the BBC alone, 15 from the Guardian, The Sun eight and even the weekly Spectator magazine lists three.

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Beyond Fleet Street, the Scottish Press is the best-represented group, with staff from this paper, the Herald, Daily Record, The Courier and the Aberdeen Press & Journal, but with only the one from each they will have to dash from the Commons to Downing Street, get through the security gate and into Number 9 and then the same in reverse to catch whatever business is going on in the House.

It’s a needless inconvenience and a reasonable compromise of having the morning brief in Downing Street but the afternoon session kept in the Lobby has been mooted.

With the Scottish election looming and a new Scottish leader to bed in, whatever holy cattle are headed for the abattoir, Downing Street shouldn’t pick pointless fights with the Scottish Press.

Free trade or holidays?

Much of Scotland’s global reputation for being lovers of hard drink is based not just on the whisky business but on the bacchanalian revelry which surrounds Hogmanay, to the extent that two bank holidays are needed for the hangover while the rest of the UK gets by with one.

But for the newspaper business, January 1 is a normal publishing day, bringing readers news of the celebrations, the New Year babies, previews of sports fixtures and such like and in the internet age that won’t change.

But now it seems First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is set to back a campaign by the shop workers union Usdaw to ban bigger shops from opening on Ne’er Day which would all but wipe out hard copy sales which remain vital to an industry already under severe financial pressures.

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie says it’s to allow retail staff to spend more time with their families, but it’s just another excuse for government to interfere with free trade.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh