Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Holyrood Leadership Blues

In a very long week, even by political standards, Holyrood has witnessed the departure of no fewer than three party leaders. First to announce his resignation was Labour's Iain Gray, who will no doubt fade from political history as quickly as he faded from the minds of voters on election day, though it has to be said that his farewell speech showed a quiet dignity he would have done well to get across earlier. Next came Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, making the best speech of his life and ready to carry the can so his party can reinvent itself, not just post- electoral losses but post-coalition. And finally, perhaps more surprising than the others, came the resignation of Conservative Annabel Goldie.

Those saying that Patrick Harvie should be nervous would do well to remember that the Greens have convenors instead of leaders, so he's probably safe. Outside Holyrood, efforts are ongoing to persuade George Galloway to resign from himself.

Labour, of course, has plenty of possible choices for Gray's replacement. The LibDems, despite having only five MSPs, are surprisingly well off (my advice would be that they go with Willie Rennie). For the Conservatives, however, things are rather more difficult. Goldie remains a highly respected politician (it's said she'll now stand for the job of presiding officer) and there's really nobody else in the party of that calibre. Top of the running list at present is Murdo Fraser, who has a lot of allies within the party but really doesn't go down well with SNP or LibDem supporters, the two groups from which the Conservatives will be trying to win back votes next time. He doesn't come across well on television and with the increasing use of social media campaigning, any awkward or embarrassing appearances will likely be seen again and again. Whilst he probably has a good chance of winning, he'd be a poor choice.

That leaves fifteen others. Ruth Davidson has suggested she might stand; she comes across as very capable but she has no parliamentary experience and would therefore represent a big risk, so she's probably out. This is a shame as parliament would benefit from more prominent women and most of the others in the Conservative party are worse choices. Mary Scanlon is tainted by her unscientific approach to vaccination issues, something which could easily become politically toxic. Elizabeth Smith showed poor judgement in her response to teenage survivors of the Dunblane shootings and would be too easily smeared. Nanette Milne has impeccable credentials but her political profile is low and, at sixty nine, she's probably too old to take on that level of commitment for what would probably be a minimum of five years.

At least they're better off than the party at Westminster, which has so few suitable elected women that it has had to resort to giving posts to a string of incompetent baronesses. The most recent of these is Angela Browning, who, when last in office, spent her time pushing for an enquiry into the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Of the women at Holyrood, the best choice would undoubtedly be Margaret Mitchell, who is well established within the party and has considerable experience as an advisor; but she, like Davidson, lacks direct parliamentary experience. It may also be unhelpful that she worked for David McLetchie, the former leader disgraced by an expenses scandal who is, of course, also ruled out as a contender.

There are other Conservative MSPs who couldn't even get a look in. Electing a baronet like Jamie McGrigor as leader would be political suicide given the public's feelings about millionaires in the Tory cabinet down south, and Jackson Carlaw is also ruled out for occupational reasons – you can imagine the headlines that would be generated by his past as a used car salesman. He's also a known racist.

That leaves five possible contenders. John Scott and Gavin Brown are both wholesome enough but are not natural leaders, and with only a small Conservative team in parliament, personality will matter. A relatively safe bet might be former whip Alex Johnstone, whose past involvement with farmers' movements could be useful in helping the party to win back its traditional rural vote; but though he's a good organiser and apparently good at maintaining discipline, he's not the most charismatic prospect for a front line role.

Those remaining – and the only two seen as serious potential competitors for Fraser – are John Lamont and Alex Fergusson. Lamont is young for the role at thirty five but he's bright and energetic. He'd need to lose his nervous smile and stop dressing like an accountant (he's actually a lawyer by trade), but his slight quirkiness could be an advantage, especially in terms of the contrast it presents to the slick dynamism of the Westminster leadership team. A Conservative leader in Scotland needs to be capable of endearing himself personally to a public tense with inherited hostility, and Lamont might just be the man for the job.

Fergusson, meanwhile, certainly doesn't want for authority, having previously served as presiding officer. He too is in a good position to attract the rural vote. His apparently genuine love of curling and country dancing could give the Nationalists a run for their money and he enjoys respect right across the political spectrum. His weakness, in the context of the leadership race, is that he's very much a free thinker – he has ignored the party whip on several occasions and the prospect of him leading the Scottish party may well make his Westminster colleagues nervous.

Which of these two men would be best for the Scottish Conservatives depends on two things: the direction they want to take, and the direction Scotland takes. If they want to push for renewed support in urban areas and reshape their image, they'd be better to go with the youthful Lamont. If they want to build up that old rural loyalty again and create a firm base from which to expand more slowly, Lamont is okay but Fergusson is probably the better choice. If Scotland remains in the United Kingdom, Lamont is likely to maintain a better relationship with Westminster. If it leaves, Fergusson could be well equipped to take the party back to its traditional roots in Scotland, restoring the respect it enjoyed in pre-Thatcher days.

Either way, the choice is a tricky one, and it's likely to impact the tone of Scottish politics beyond the Conservative party itself. But at least the winner will have five years of peace to enjoy before facing off against the SNP in another Scottish election.

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