It has to be one of the most astonishing – not to mention bold and risky –
moves ever attempted by a politician, of any colour. This morning Murdo Fraser, the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and clear frontrunner for the leadership of the Scottish Tories,
announced plans to disband his own party if he wins the leadership contest.
Under his plans, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party would cease to be. It would be an ex-party. The Conservatives would fight no more elections in Scotland after next year’s council
elections. Instead, a new centre-right party would take its place, crucially free from the toxicity which still surrounds the Conservative brand north of the border. In a revealing statement, one
of Fraser’s strategists explained the thinking by saying:
"Murdo believes that there is no point having a new captain on the bridge of the Titanic. Whoever is captain, the Titanic is going to sink. We don’t need a new captain, we need a
This would be interesting enough if it were coming from a leadership outsider, but Fraser is not just another leadership candidate. He is on course to win the contest to replace Annabel
Goldie as Scottish Conservative Leader in November. He already has half the MSPs on his side – not just backing his leadership aspirations but signed up to his "new party" plan and he
may well get most of the others before too long too.Writing in today’s Scottish Mail on Sunday, Fraser said:
"Our party – the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party – will never succeed. It will never be able to promote the values we stand for – the values which
Scotland needs. It is time to start again. So if I am elected leader, I will turn the party into a new party for Scotland. A new party, distinctly Scottish, standing up for Scottish interests…
A new party, with a new name."
And he added: "It’s time to learn the lesson. It’s time to change. It’s time for a new party for Scotland."
Fraser’s plans are certain to lead to a civil war within the Scottish Conservative Party with traditionalists pitched against modernisers – and it is not going to be pleasant. If Fraser
is defeated, some of the modernisers (including himself) may leave the party and start their own breakaway. If Fraser wins, some of the traditionalists may leave. Either way there will be blood on
the walls of the New Club in Princes Street and the other few remaining havens of Conservatism in Scotland.
How does David Cameron feel about this? Fraser’s strategists have confirmed that they have informed the Prime Minister of their plans to abolish his party north of the border, but his
reaction has not been forthcoming. Downing Street would apparently only say this morning that this was a decision for the Scottish Conservative Party and it will not interfere: but Cameron is
unlikely to be happy.
Fraser’s plans confirm the impression in public – one that Cameron has been keen to deny for many years – that Scotland has become a no-go area for the Conservatives. But Fraser
does have some allies in London. Some senior Conservatives, exasperated by the repeated failures of their Caledonian colleagues, have long argued that the Scottish Conservatives should be cast
adrift to fend for themselves and this plan does exactly that. There are others, though, who will see it as a dangerous and precipitate move, one that will hasten the end of the Union itself.
Central to Fraser’s plan is the belief that there are enough centre-right voters in Scotland to join in his crusade and, crucially, that there will be enough big-money business backers to
bankroll his new enterprise – backers and voters who have deserted the Scottish Conservatives in recent years. In one sense, then, Fraser’s plans can be seen as actually anticipating
the change in Scottish politics that would happen if the country goes independent. But Fraser is adamant that his new movement will fight independence, even though it will pursue a defiantly
aggressive pro-devolution and pro-de-centralisation agenda.
The party would have a new name and, although this has not yet been decided, the terms "progressive", "democrat", "unionist" and "Scottish" have already been
mooted by some of those behind the plan. The new party would also be completely distinct from the UK Conservative Party – although it would establish a formal alliance to make sure the two
parties worked together – and it would have its own policies. Fraser believes that the party should have different policies from the UK Conservative Party, particularly on fishing (he
advocates withdrawal from the European Common Fisheries Policy) and on defence (he supports the retention of Scottish air bases). But crucially, he believes the new party has to be really positive
about devolution and embrace the Scottish Parliament in a way that the Scottish Conservative Party has often had trouble doing.
Fraser is being challenged for the leadership by West of Scotland list MSP Jackson Carlaw and new Glasgow MSP Ruth Davidson, both of whom may feel they have more to gain now that Fraser’s
radical plan has been made public. But, if Fraser wins, it really will be his party: not just one he is leading, but one that he has created as well and that will give him a degree of autonomy and
power not even dreamt of by his predecessors in the Scottish Conservative Party. It has suddenly made a very dull leadership contest for the northern wing of the Conservative Party very interesting
– very interesting indeed.