UK Politics

New name, new era for Scottish Tories?

Murdo Fraser
Image caption Murdo Fraser's rebranding idea has divided the Scottish Conservatives

It's an unlikely constitutional conundrum facing a party which prides itself on the union between England and Scotland.

After decades in the political wilderness, however, the Scottish Conservatives are being forced to consider whether their very survival depends on breaking away.

Not from England, but from the rest of the Conservative Party.

The question has arisen not because of the SNP's desire to call an independence referendum before 2015.

Instead it's a vision of rebirth from one of the four candidates in the race to become the next leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

It's one of two big constitutional battles facing the Tories, as they stand, since the next Scottish leader will almost certainly have to lead his or her party's "No" campaign against the nationalists' independence plans.

'Build it up'

But, if the current deputy leader Murdo Fraser gets his way, he will become leader of a renamed, rebranded centre-right party, distanced from the old Scottish Tories - a party which has failed miserably to win back popular support since 1997.

There's still only one Scottish Tory MP, David Mundell, a Scotland Office minister, and on Saturday he condemned Mr Fraser's proposals.

He insists the plan to split from the UK party would amount to a betrayal of voters in Scotland.

"What we need to do is rally round the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party and build it up," he argues.

And on that, the other three candidates - Jackson Carlaw, Ruth Davidson, and Margaret Mitchell - agree.

The trio, all of whom are members of the Scottish Parliament like Mr Fraser, have publicly ridiculed the idea of disbanding the Scottish party.

None of the four candidates has the official backing of the prime minister, but perhaps there's an inkling of support evident from Mr Mundell's remarks, in which he backed Ms Davidson. The comments had been approved by Number 10.

'Grave error'

There is, however, no disguising the frustration of the UK leadership at the failure of the Scottish party to emulate recent electoral successes in England and Wales.

Mr Fraser argues that a new name is required to "detoxify" the brand north of the border, and has the support of figures like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Secretary of State for Scotland.

But the breakaway plan would be a "grave error" according to another former Scottish Secretary, Lord Forsyth.

However, allowing the Scottish Tories to breakaway might, some senior figures believe, play into the hands of the nationalists and prevent the prime minister from setting out a coherent argument to keep the United Kingdom together.

"How" they ask, "would David Cameron fight for the Union, if his own party had just set the Scots free?"

The leadership arguments and the party's future will dominate this week's conference for Scottish representatives. All four candidates will take part in a hustings event on Monday.

Next week, ballot papers will be sent out to more than 8,000 Scottish party members, who will decide who is right. The result will be known on 4 November.

Depending on which candidates wins, there could be constitutional fireworks the following day.