Scottish Tories square up at party conference

In Manchester for the Tory conference - and there are some fascinating sights to witness.

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Image caption The four leadership candidates went head-to-head at the Tory conference

For example, they have a remarkable form of light transit across the city. Runs on rails, overhead power cables. They call it "the trams".

Any possibility that could translate to Scotland?

And, politically, there was an intriguing event at lunchtime as the four contenders for the Scottish Conservative leadership sought to persuade and cajole.

One of the four, Margaret Mitchell, stressed more than once that they were not participating in a "beauty contest" - which caused the others to grin uncomfortably and fix their hair.

So, if not a pageant of pulchritude, what is this contest?

Self-evidently, an election, a keenly contested election. But, as today's hustings confirmed, this is also a quasi-referendum: on the very future of the party in Scotland.

That is because one of the candidates, Murdo Fraser, has proposed that the current party should transform into an entirely new centre-right outfit.

Every question from the floor focused upon this prospect: supportively, sceptically or antagonistically.

Which is entirely right.

There is little point in the candidates spotlighting the fine detail of housing policy while the party confronts a fundamental choice about the very nature of its existence and its pitch to the electorate in Scotland.

The essential case was debated at the Manchester hustings.

Mr Fraser argued the Tories could not get a hearing at all in Scotland - because they were not seen as representing Scottish interests, as having a Scottish identity.

His rivals dissented from this, arguing that improved organisation, enhanced communication and hard work to re-engage with the voters could counter this negative tendency.

Tried all that, says Mr Fraser: didn't work, won't work now. Hence, the fundamental choice that is now presenting itself to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

A referendum, then - but not a straightforward one. A multi-option referendum, if you like, in that there are three candidates who oppose Mr Fraser's plan.

Of those, it is generally presumed that Ruth Davidson is the frontrunner - and she performed well, with light touches of self-deprecating humour.

But Jackson Carlaw will have done himself no harm at all with a feisty show, majoring on his experience and dog-whistle appeals to basic Conservative attitudes.

Mr Carlaw argued the Tories risk making themselves look intrinsically foolish by concentrating upon internal strategy and structures while Scotland prepares for a full-blown referendum of another kind: upon independence.

Mr Fraser contested that by arguing that the Tories were going absolutely nowhere as things stood. They must transform or head towards oblivion.

His team believe that, if he wins the election, he will have the momentum - and Westminster compliance - to ensure that he can complete the transition to a new Scottish party which would take the Tory whip in the Commons.

Against that, Ms Davidson pointed to the Conservative party in Wales, which has regained ground.

She argued that a fresh approach, allied to restructured organisation, could repeat that performance in Scotland.

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Image caption Scotland's sole Tory MP David Mundell is not happy about Murdo Fraser's plan

(As an aside, my BBC Wales colleagues tell me that there was warm applause at a Welsh fringe when the Wales Office Minister David Jones criticised the plan to rename and rebrand the party in Scotland.)

Margaret Mitchell characterised herself as the arch-Unionist, opposed to the new tax powers for Holyrood in the Scotland Bill.

In the audience, the Scotland Office Minister David Mundell greeted that with a thin smile.

Other interesting cameo points.

Sections of the audience did not appear to like it when Margaret Mitchell directly spotlighted Ruth Davidson's limited experience. There was sporadic grumbling, although only sporadic.

Murdo Fraser appeared to suggest he had had to bite his tongue at points during the past few years when he noted that he had remained utterly loyal as Annabel Goldie's deputy, despite occasional private differences.

But, of course, this Tory "referendum" will be decided not in Manchester, not at the party hustings around Scotland - but in a postal ballot of the members.

And that will be conducted via the alternative vote.

Party members will rank the candidates in order of preference. The least popular candidate drops out, with their first preference votes reallocated according to second preference.

That process is repeated until an overall winner emerges.

It is generally thought Murdo Fraser, as the experienced, incumbent deputy leader, would have won comfortably - if he had kept quiet about his radical reform thinking.

Team Fraser argue that it is to his credit that he has been frank and upfront about his views on the party - and his proposed solution.

But will he still win when second, third and possibly fourth preferences are redistributed - when, by definition, those votes will initially have gone to candidates who dislike his reform plan?

Can he convince enough switchers to back him?

We will know on 4th November.