What If…. the Scottish Conservatives Push the Murdo Fraser Button?

2022 is barely even two weeks in, and we’re already experiencing high political drama. Though many in the Conservative Party had hoped the festive period might have cooled public tempers around guidance-busting parties at Number 10, those hopes went up in flames as a fresh batch of revelations landed on the front pages this week. If public outrage, and plummeting polling, wasn’t enough for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he’s now facing an outright revolt from his party’s Holyrood contingent.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who had already resigned from the government payroll in 2020 over Dominic Cumming’s Barnard Castle trip, has made clear he no longer thinks the man he backed as leader in 2019 is fit for the job, describing his position as “untenable”. This was followed in short order by public declarations of agreement from most of his MSPs. According to some journalists, even those who haven’t spoke publicly are standing squarely behind Ross, putting the MSP group unanimously against the Prime Minister.

For the devolved wing of a major UK party to be openly opposing their UK party leader is absolutely unprecedented. Yet clearly, that is the position Ross and his MSPs have decided is the only one available to them. Many journalists, and former Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins, are now talking openly about the prospect of the Scottish Conservatives splitting off to become an independent party.

In the absence of Scottish polling for the moment – I trust at least one newspaper has got its chequebook out to fund some – I thought it’d be worth taking a look at the prospect in more detail. That starts with a trip back in time to cover some of the history…

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Unionist Party

In floating the notion of a separate Scottish Conservative Party, we’re re-treading ground not just from 2011 but much earlier. Although Conservative and Unionist is indeed an apt description of the party’s ideology, that’s not the whole story of the name. Instead, it reflects the fact the modern party is a merger of the (English and Welsh) Conservative Party and the (Scottish) Unionist Party in the 60’s.

Referring when founded to the union between Great Britain and Ireland rather than that between Scotland and England, the Unionist Party spent fifty years as one of the country’s major political forces. Although clearly aligned with the Conservative Party – at least one “Conservative” Prime Minister was in fact a Unionist MP – it cultivated a uniquely Scottish identity.

Odd as it may seem to today’s observers, who know Labour as the party that introduced Devolution and the Conservatives as the party that opposed it, part of their appeal was in seeming to stand for uniquely Scottish values in the face of a centralising British Labour party. Although it experienced great success as late as 1955, the last time anyone but the SNP or Labour won an election in Scotland, fortunes were waning by the 60’s, and merger beckoned.

Murdo Fraser's 2011 Plan

As we all know, that merger didn’t reverse a decline in fortunes, and Scotland would become increasingly less likely to vote Conservative, culminating in the party’s wipeout here in 1997. Devolution, ironically, offered the party salvation, but only in allowing it to limp on as a shadow of its former self. The Conservatives won a clear majority of English seats in 2010 but still just one in Scotland. Then, in 2011, the SNP majority handed the Conservatives their worst Holyrood result yet and prompted an Independence referendum they had bitterly opposed.

That year’s leadership election became a contest between two different, yet perhaps equally radical, visions to try and save the party. Eventual victor Ruth Davidson offered a new vision of what a Conservative was for a new generation – the phrase “kickboxing lesbian” was never missing from profiles of her at the time. Murdo Fraser meanwhile was of a more traditional bent, but his core policy was to once again have an independent Scottish party of the centre-right, working alongside but separately from its counterparts in England and Wales.

Although this proposal had the support of a majority of the MSP group at the time, it wasn’t without detractors. David Mundell, then the sole Conservative MP in Scotland, was utterly against it. As it transpired, so too were the rank-and-file albeit not as strongly, with the final round splitting 55:45. The notion lay mostly dormant for years following, not least given Davidson led the party to a stunning revival in 2016.

It might have lain dormant for much longer were it not for recent events. But it’s much easier to float the idea than it is to implement it. Should Douglas Ross decide he’s seen wisdom in his colleague’s idea from a decade ago, there will be a range of political and practical hurdles facing him and his new party. None of these, it must be said, would be insurmountable, but nor are they insignificant. 

Political Considerations

MSPs - the Easy Part

The first challenge facing Ross in establishing a new party is maintaining his current status as the leading opposition to the SNP. To do this, he’d have to ensure it remains the second largest group at Holyrood. That, it appears, won’t be difficult in the slightest, given his MSPs are entirely behind him. Any MSP having cast their lot in with their leader on so dramatic an issue surely has to have done so knowing that one possible outcome is a full break with the UK party.

Even if the tiny minority of MSPs who haven’t yet made a public statement of support for their leader’s position were to balk at the idea of a new party, it wouldn’t be sufficient for it to fall below Labour. In addition, the prospect of existing as a rump group with no particular parliamentary privileges (you need 5 MSPs for that, as the 4 Lib Dems can mournfully attest) and the ire of your former colleagues is likely to be deeply unappealing.

Note that this graphic is correct, as to the best of my investigations, as of 11pm on the 12th of January.

Councillors - the Medium Part

With MSPs mostly in the bag, the next contingent of elected representatives to turn to are Councillors. There are currently 264 of them by my reckoning, but the party elected 276 in 2017 and had they stood enough candidates could actually have won 290. All of these figures are substantial, and will cover a vast spectrum of opinion within the party.

Although they won’t necessarily all have a particularly close relationship with Ross or any of his MSPs, it will be closer than with the UK-wide party. The Scottish Conservatives may not be separate, but they do have substantial say over their own affairs locally. It’s reasonable to assume that if push came to shove, many would follow the lead of their counterparts at Holyrood.

In addition the overwhelming majority of the Conservative councillors elected in 2017, around 60%, owe their seats to the party’s post-Referendum surge. Many of them were themselves motivated to get involved in politics by that vote. The Union is the core concern for many Conservative councillors, and if they feel the Prime Minister is putting it at risk, they may act accordingly.

MPs - the Hard Part

Things are getting much tougher by the time we get to talking about the MPs at Westminster. None of them, Ross himself excepted of course, have backed their leader’s call for Johnson to resign. Some of this may be explained by proximity – one of them is in the Cabinet and can’t call for the PM to go without himself losing office, and the others all have much closer contact with the UK party than their Holyrood colleagues.

Mundell in particular may still be maintaining the strong line of party loyalty he had in opposing Fraser’s idea in 2011, even after Johnson replaced him as Scottish Secretary with Alister Jack. In addition, they’ll be making the same calculations any possibly recalcitrant MSPs will be. If it’d be uncomfortable for 3 or 4 MSPs to face off against 27 or 28 of their former colleagues, try being one of 6 MPs facing off against over 350 former colleagues. 

The Risk of the Rump

Regardless of exactly how many MSPs, Councillors and MPs that the new party was able to get on board, it seems vanishingly unlikely it would get them all, never mind the rank-and-file membership. That then raises perhaps the trickiest question of all – what does the rump do? The answer to this could have serious repercussions.

A rump Scottish Conservative Party standing against the New Unionists in key contests could see both losing out as a result. Even if it ends up as a minority and thus isn’t equipped for widespread contesting, if it included MPs who wanted to defend their seat, that’d create tension. Both parties standing would hand the seat to the SNP, but the new party failing to do so would lose face. Voters would rightly wonder what the point of a split was if it was standing aside for the rump party.

We also can’t be sure how many voters would follow suit either. I think we can reasonably assume that the cleanest possible break would see most committed Conservatives easily follow to the New Unionist party, with relatively minimal leakage to Labour and the Lib Dems. Indeed, it might even pick up some new voters from those parties. But if a rump remains to vote for, we can’t say how voters will fall. I’d still expect most to go for the new party, prioritising success and the Union, but there’s a big difference between most meaning 60% versus meaning 90%.

No, it's Not the Same, But...

One final political consideration has been noted by a number of commentators – namely, that if the Scottish Conservatives become a fully independent party, they’ll inevitably be asked why the same logic doesn’t apply to Scotland and the UK. The answer to that is, of course, that there’s a vast difference between a party and a country.

However, I’d put this argument in the same basket as people who challenge Independence supporters on backing for the EU. Why is one Union (European) desirable for them, and the other Union (British and Northern Irish) not? Well, again, there are vast differences between a union of sovereign states and a union that is a sovereign state.

In both cases, just because there is an obvious answer to the question doesn’t mean that the equation isn’t compelling for some people. By the time you’ve explained exactly why the two concepts are different once, your opponents have cheerily said they are identical a half-dozen times. This is by no means fatal or even that impactful, but it’d be at least be a very tiresome question for the first few months of the party’s existence.

Political considerations out of the way, let’s now turn to the just as sticky practical side of things.

Practical Considerations

What's it Called?

Cumbernauld! Ahem, sorry, that was physically impossible to resist. 

The most obvious practical thing Ross and his new party would have to consider is seemingly simple – what do they call themselves? I’ve used the term New Unionists a couple of times purely as a placeholder, but something with Unionist in it would be a sensible approach. Scottish Unionist Party might seem obvious, but a party of that name actually existed until November last year. There are regulations in place that prevent new parties from re-using the name of old parties before a certain period has passed, so that’s probably a non-starter. 

An easy option for any party is to stick “Democratic” in there somewhere but, well, there’s a rather well known Northern Irish Party that goes by the Democratic Unionist Party, so that’s out. I could probably keep speculating with various alternatives for a few paragraphs but you get my point – they’ve got to come up with something both unique and which encapsulates their ideology.

Staff, Assets and Administration

A much thornier issue relates to the party’s staff, assets and administration. As the current Scottish Conservatives aren’t a separate party, all of these would technically be employed by and belong to the UK Party. Willing staff would be easy enough to move, but party offices famously lack sentience. And they can’t take party members with them if the central party objects, not least because of GDPR concerns.

Just how thorny this is would depend on the rump situation mentioned earlier. If the UK party accepted what was happening as a done deal, even if not very happy with it, they might decide the safest thing for them to do politically is just to amicably hand everything over. If they opted to resist, it could be a lot more painful.

Finance and Donors

This is somewhat related to the above point, but distinct enough to get its own heading. Political parties need money to run – to pay staff, hire offices, print materials, all sorts of basic things. So far so obvious, but where would that money come from? Member dues are a famously small portion of Conservative income, so even if all of their members came over that’s not going to make up for a lack of donors.

As at least one journalist has noted, Fraser’s 2011 plan was welcomed and potentially going to be part-funded by a certain Alister Jack. You have to assume he might be a bit less keen on the idea now. So where would the money come from? Unlike the present where they could rely on apportionment of funds from a UK-wide party, a standalone would have to be funded alone.

Even my favoured plan for public funding for political parties wouldn’t help, based as it would be on votes received at Holyrood and Westminster, of which the new party would have 0 for its first few years. Of course, support for the Union is by no means lacking amongst people with the means to fund a party, so it’s highly doubtful the new party would struggle without much money for too long.

A Question of Timing

As one final point, when does this break happen? Right now, everything is very up in the air. We don’t know how many Conservative MPs have written to the 1922 Committee to call for a leadership election. We don’t know how many more will do so after the civil service investigation into parties reports back. We don’t know whether the Prime Minister will weather this northern rebellion for long enough a split becomes seen as necessary, or go down fast enough that all the media chat, and lengthy pieces pondering possibilities like this one, proved needless. But timing is crucial.

We have local elections in Scotland now in less than four months. It would be extremely difficult to set up this new party in that timescale. Even it was set up, it’d be a logistical nightmare for it to nominate hundreds of candidates and print leaflets for them, all with shiny new branding under the new name. But if the argument is that Johnson has become a risk to both the Union and Conservative success in Scotland, waiting until after the vote may mean waiting until a lot of damage has been done.

The Waiting Game

For now, all anyone can do is wait and see how this turns out. Nothing I’ve mentioned above need be a fatal barrier to a new party launching – and nor is it anywhere near certain that such a thing will happen. Scotland and the UK as a whole have had a particularly unpredictable decade, and anyone claiming to predict the future at this point needs clattered firmly over the heid with their crystal ball.

Regardless of outcome, Ballot Box Scotland will be keeping the usual watchful eye on polling for any possible impacts. I know I’m not alone in hoping we get some proper Scottish polls soon, and in coming weeks I’ll also be considering how this might need to be reflected in my coverage ahead of May’s council elections. 

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