First, I must apologise for this being a week later than is timely – I came down with a cold on the post-conference weekend and then had to fly out to Romania on the Monday. Now I’m back, I can finally jot down by thoughts about how the union is faring at the Conservative and Unionist Party’s annual gathering.
At present, the best answer seems to be ‘variably’. At the ConHome ‘Winning in 2015’ event on the Sunday I asked the following question: “Our weak performance outside England isn’t just making it difficult to win a majority, but is one of the key drivers of the UK’s constitutional crisis. What is the strategy for Scotland?” Sadly the panel didn’t seem particularly interested, and I only got half an answer from one of the five panel members.
The respondent, Chris Grayling, outlined his belief that the main space for Conservative growth in the 2015 general election is at the SNP’s expense, an option I’ve also lent considerable thought to. According to Grayling, many Conservatives are anticipating some form of SNP collapse (or at least, substantial shrinkage) after a ‘No’ victory in the 2014 referendum. The Conservatives can try to exploit this to win back the non-separatist centre-right vote that the SNP have captured since 1992. Speaking to me afterwards, David Davis supported that analysis.
In and of itself, I think this is a fairly sensible view. The Scottish Conservatives aren’t going to be in a position to lure away Labour votes north of the border in 2015, but with the potential collapse of both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – two places were centre-right Tory-averse voters might shelter – there is great potential in aggressively targeting their right flanks, with potential seats in southern, central and north-eastern Scotland.
But the telling problem is that, while this information could be teased out of the party, it wasn’t being talked about openly. Had I not asked a question and then cornered a further panellist, it is unlikely that Scotland would have received any mention at this event at all. Although a fair amount of grassroots members are interested in 2014, for the moment the interest of senior English party figures in the topic appears to start and end with David Cameron.
Thus the burden of most unionist events fell to the Scots. This year, the conference maintained its hugely annoying habit of scheduling all the regional party events against one another. If you were at all interested in doing a slow tour over the three days of conference to see how the party performs in different areas, you’re totally out of luck. As a result, I had to skip the Welsh fringe for the Scottish one and arrive late at the Northern Irish reception to catch the gist of the Scots one.
Ruth Davidson’s speech at the Scottish fringe was lively, witty and possessed much more policy self-confidence than I’ve seen in the Scots Tories before. Defiantly announcing that “the time for sack-cloth and ashes is over”, she drew strength from Labour leader Johann Lamont’s recent Damascene conversion over universal benefits and laid into the ‘all-must-have-prizes’ Scottish consensus.
It seems that Davidson has decided that Lamont has shifted the national conversation in Scotland in a way that is good for long-term Conservative prospects. This is an analysis I’d support. While one member of the press asked whether or not Labour’s partial adoption of this sort of thinking rather took the wind out of Tory sails, fact is the Conservatives weren’t getting a hearing on this sort of stuff anyway. By shifting the debate as she has, Johann as started to normalise the Conservative position on public spending, which should have great long-term potential benefits for a party whose fiscal realism has for so long leant it pariah status.
Set against this meeting, the reception was a touch dry (although not in the teetotal sense, being held in conjunction with the Scottish Whiskey Association). The entire event appeared to consist of waiting for Cameron to arrive, listening to his speech, and then drifting off. I don’t remember his speech being as good as the one at last year’s conference (when the need to defeat Murdo Fraser probably pepped him up) but nonetheless it is nice to see our leader reaffirming annually his very real commitment to the union.
The Northern Irish reception, to which I arrived rather late thanks to the aforementioned scheduling, was also OK. I missed the speech by the Secretary of State (and the Prime Minister, if he turned up) and as such most of the speeches I heard centred on the devolution of corporation tax to the Assembly, a policy I’m not sure I support – but perhaps that is just my reflex distaste for any “more devolution” argument. The event was well-attended however, and Irwin Armstrong could rightly boast that, at long last, the Northern Irish Conservatives were a fully formed party properly integrated into the national party. As someone who remembers the last few NI receptions where this was far from the case, it made a welcome change.
The only other event of note, co-hosted by Conservative Friends of the Union and the London Scottish Conservative Club, was a speech by Dr Liam Fox entitled “In Defence of the Realm: Why independence is not just a Scottish issue”. This is a message this site is rather keen to promote, so I went along with high expectations. It turned out to be a touch more policy-specific than I was expecting, centring on Dr Fox tearing the SNP’s proposed division of the Armed Forces into little pieces rather than ‘defence’ in the fighting-for-the-union sense, but it was nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. I will contact Dr Fox’s office to try and get the full text of his speech.
On another note, once again my attempts to get involved with CFU were rebuffed. It seems resolutely set on sticking to Scotland for the time being, which is a big shame given the dire need for some organisation banging the drum on this issue south of the border.
Thus ends another Conservative conference, and the rise of the union up the agenda continues (slowly). I managed a brief chat with Grant Schapps and will try to bring you a more in-depth article on Conservative strategy in Scotland at some future date. For now, I need to try and get some OU correspondents into Labour and Liberal Democrat circles by next year. Any volunteers?Share on Facebook