Cameron a thorn in side of Scottish Tories

British prime minister has shown ‘galling’ attitude to Scotland, says party member

From a distance, one could assume that Conservatism is dead in Scotland: the party that was once dominant is down to just one House of Commons MP, and occupying just 15 places in the Scottish parliament.

The Conservative Party, undoubtedly, is but a pale shadow of its former self. Nevertheless, 412,885 people voted for it across Scotland’s 59 constituencies in the 2010 Westminster elections, out of the 2,465,772 who went to the polls – almost 17 per cent.

Last September, after the independence referendum was defeated by a 10-point margin, the Scottish Conservatives emerged more chipper than they had been for years.

Today, however, there is barely disguised irritation to be found. Significantly, little of the real venom is directed at the Scottish National Party, or Labour. Instead, it is directed at the Conservative leader, David Cameron.

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For weeks, Cameron has warned of the "threat" the SNP will pose if it holds the balance of power, while home secretary Theresa May declared it, potentially, to be "the worst crisis" since Edward VIII's abdication.

Off key

Cameron’s handling of the constitutional question has been off-key since the results of the independence referendum began to be declared in the early hours of September 19th.

Immediately, he prepared words for Downing Street after dawn: Scotland would get more devolution, as promised, but it would be linked to changes in England – “English votes for English laws”.

Labour's Alistair Darling, who had led the Better Together campaign, pleaded with him not to link the two; believing, rightly, that it would be interpreted as a betrayal in Scotland. Cameron would not listen. In the end, however, he did have to retreat.

Legislation for extra Scottish devolution – even if seen by some as inadequate – has been prepared. The plans for England still remain in the works.

However, the damage to Scottish trust in the Conservatives – never high to start with – was done, hurting the hopes Scottish Conservatives had that the referendum could be the platform for renewal.

Cameron’s tactics have successfully inflamed some English voters; but, for different reasons, they have done the same in Scotland, feeding the belief that Conservatives only ever wants a docile Scotland.

“I find that pretty galling, so do many colleagues,” warns one Scottish Conservative politician. “Cameron is putting the short-term electoral prospects of the Tories ahead of the future of the UK.”

Last week, the former head of communications of the Scottish Conservatives, Andy Maciver, said the party north of the border is now being "hindered" by its association with London.

“There is mouth-foaming anger amongst those to whom I have spoken. If the SNP could create the Tory campaign, according to my erstwhile colleagues, they would have created the one we have seen,” he said.

Besides warning about the SNP’s impending dominance, couched in language that implied that such would be bordering upon the illegitimate, Cameron unveiled the so-called Carlisle Principle.

Under this seemingly rushed dictum, a Conservative-led government would hold an annual review to ensure that the Scots are not getting unfair advantage over the English from devolution.

His strategy baffled his party members in Scotland. He could have offered meaningful devolution to all parts of England to match, or nearly match what the Scots enjoy.

“Scots would have said, ‘Fair enough’. I know why he did it – why would he bother about winning two seats in Scotland if he can win 20 in England by going this way? But that doesn’t make it right,” complained a senior Scottish Conservative.

Sever links

During an unsuccessful bid for the Scottish Conservatives' leadership, the Perth Holyrood member, Murdo Fraser, proposed that the party should sever links and rename itself as the Radical Party.

Today, Fraser has put such thoughts aside, believing that the tectonic plates that are moving in Scottish politics – the SNP’s rise, Labour’s fall, more control over taxes for Holyrood – all offer room for the Conservatives to build on.

"We came out of the referendum in quite a good place," he tells The Irish Times over a coffee in a cafe on High Street in Perth.

“We came out quite energised, quite a few new recruits.”

The Scottish Conservatives must hold their only Commons seat in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, where outgoing MP David Mundell is facing a challenge from the SNP.

A succession of polls by Lord Michael Ashcroft in the borderlands constituency have put the SNP ahead by between 10 and 15 percentage points – though the polls have not included candidates' names.

Mundell is regarded as a diligent constituency MP, even by those who do not like his politics; but his SNP opponent, Emma Harper, urges voters to back "the nurse who'll kick the last Tory MP out of Scotland".

Fraser is careful about his hopes: “People are more prepared now to admit that they are Conservative than they were in the past. The electoral system doesn’t help us. People tactically voted in 1997 to get us out.”

Believing that Mundell will win, he hopes, too, that the Conservatives can oust the Liberal Democrats' former Scottish secretary Michael Moore in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, where the Liberal Democrats vote has collapsed, could fall, too; but, also, Dumfries and Galloway, where Labour's support has collapsed.

Beyond Thursday, ever-increasing devolution for Scotland bodes well for the Conservatives, since sooner or later Scottish politicians will have to tell voters how much they – not London – will tax them.

Falling fortunes

“There is an opportunity for us. The SNP may end up telling people that they will raise rates. We won’t be doing that,” says Fraser, while the falling fortunes of Scottish Labour offers opportunities, too.

“A post-election Labour/ SNP deal of any form means Labour is finished in Scotland. If you can get a Labour government without voting Labour, then why would you vote Labour?” he continues.

“Labour in Scotland kills itself by doing a deal with the SNP. It makes Miliband’s job in England more difficult if he is seen in England to be at the beck-and-call of the SNP.

“Curiously, from a purely selfish point of view, it will be good for us in Scotland as a strong unionist party and good for the Conservatives in England,” he says, with a smile.