#BackingBallantyne vs. #TeamJackson – is a safe pair of hands what's needed?

#BackingBallantyne vs. #TeamJackson – is a safe pair of hands what's needed?

by Linda Holt
article from Tuesday 4, February, 2020

THE SCOTTISH CONSERVATIVE leadership contest is hotting up. 18,000 Scottish Conservative members* have been sent their ballot papers, and they have under two weeks left to choose their next leader.

Before nominations closed, it looked like Jackson Carlaw, Ruth Davidson’s deputy since 2011 and the interim leader since last August when she resigned, was heading for a coronation. A smooth formalisation of existing arrangements was undoubtedly what the party hierarchy in Scotland and London anticipated, and there was pressure on MSPs not to upset the apple-cart by standing against Carlaw. Potential front runners duly stood aside.

One MSP then bucked the trend. Former leader of Scottish Borders Council Michelle Ballantyne put her name forward, ostensibly to “have a real contest and not a coronation”. #TeamJackson wasted no time in obtaining the endorsement of every Conservative MP, MSP and even council group leader in Scotland. Yet Ballantyne obtained the 100 nominations she needed to qualify as a candidate by focussing on “the grassroots ... the membership ... the people that really matter actually because we work for them”.

An MSP only since 2017, Ballantyne has not been one of the opposition’s front bench stars. Her performance as Social Security spokesperson has been, perhaps inevitably, dull and dutiful – apart from her now notorious goof in defending the two child cap with the claim that “people on benefit cannot have as many children as they like”. The other most prominent fact about her, as far as the press was concerned, was that she was a mother of six.

Two weeks ago #TeamJackson hardly regarded Ballantyne as a threat, their candidate still a shoo-in as the tried and tested man for the job. Six hustings up and down the country later, and the tables are turning. Last week there were clear signs of panic when Carlaw threw out the agreement not to get personal and ripped into his rival. Responding to Ballantyne’s argument that the Scottish Conservatives needed to look at their tactics following the loss of half their MPs in November’s general election, he accused her of attacking activists who had fought the election, going against the Prime Minister who had approved the Scottish campaign and failing herself to come up with a single policy proposal while in the shadow cabinet. In case this did not put her in her place, Carlaw emphasised how the lack of a single endorsement from an MP or MSP should surely make a candidate think twice about standing. The word was also put out that Carlaw would sack her from the front bench. So much for daring to articulate the dissatisfaction in the ranks, or to puncture the pat on the head act, the ‘all is fine - we’re doing very well’ line that Carlaw oozes.

What has changed? Having resigned from the Scottish Conservatives, I couldn’t go to any of the hustings, but they seem to have been better attended and discussion more lively than some might have expected. The reaction on social media has favoured Ballantyne, with a surprising spread of councillors and younger members enthusiastic in their promotion of her. In newspaper articles and on social media posts, Ballantyne has also put some meat on how she would change things as leader. Her prescriptions still lack focus and detail for my taste – although perhaps she supplied more face-to-face in the hustings – but they are considerably fatter than what Carlaw has offered. Two things stand out.

First, Ballantyne has been unequivocal in calling out the party’s poor general election result in Scotland and linking this to its exclusive concentration on constitutional questions. Her positive policy programme adds a blue-collar spin to the traditional preoccupations of Tory voters – law and order, tax, home ownership, transport, NHS, teachers, service personnel, families caught in a cycle of deprivation and breakdown.

Second, and most striking in Ballantyne’s programme is its focus on party members and party structures. She promises more power to the former by overhauling the latter. Pledges include giving “power back to local associations”, a policy convention for members, “reforming party structures to win”, “a party board that works for members” and more support for councillors.

This is clever. If winning the votes of the grassroots is the key to victory, then treating them as if they matter and giving them a real stake – something the party in Scotland has been very bad at – is bound to be music to many members’ ears. By all accounts, Ballantyne has been able to reinforce this message in the way she has come across in hustings.

But it’s also clever because it taps into a larger anti-establishment feeling. Even though it is a nationalist trap, there is a tendency among unionists to play up the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK (and specifically England) – of course the fact of the SNP and the question of independence encourages this habit of thought. This Scottish exceptionalism saw Ruth Davidson line up with the SNP against Brexit and against Boris, ignoring the million+ Scots who voted for Brexit – nearly 40 per cent of the voting population and more in absolute number and percentage than voted SNP in the 2017 general election.

More significantly, Scottish exceptionalism has obscured the existence of populist, anti-establishment feeling in Scotland. Such feeling predates its UK irruption via Brexit on the right, and the election of Corbyn on the left. In Scotland, it has long been mopped up by the independence movement in general, and the SNP in particular. The SNP is a classic populist party, its anti-elitism and anti-establishment credentials trademarked as anti-Westminster.

Last summer’s Tory leadership contest shone a light on anti-establishment feeling among Scottish Conservatives. I remember attending a hustings in Perth for Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt where a phalange of Conservative MSPs and party functionaries were stony-faced as the ordinary members in the audience were visibly more enthusiastic about Johnson than Hunt. With a few exceptions, MSPs and MPs following Davidson came out again and again against Johnson. Davidson may have resolved for herself the dilemma posed by Johnson’s election and his determination to get Brexit done by resigning the leadership, and announcing her intention to retire in 2021, but the rest of the party hierarchy has still to address that dilemma.

Whether she wins or not, the success of Michelle Ballantyne, one of the very few Scottish Conservative MSPs or MPs to come out for Leave, Brexit and Johnson, shows the party cannot carry on pretending the dilemma doesn’t exist.

Brexit and Boris brought to the surface the disconnect between a Conservative political establishment (the MPs, MSPs, Scottish Conservative Central Office, the Party Board) and Conservative grassroots (many councillors, members, activists, supporters and crucially voters). The 2014 Independence Referendum, Ruth Davidson’s extraordinary electoral successes, her identity as an outsider with the common touch and the sheer force of her personality had all served to ameliorate and conceal this disconnect.

Carlaw is a consummate insider, an MSP since 2007 who has spent his entire adult life pursuing political office within the Scottish Conservative Party. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be more “one of the boys”. He’s obviously the candidate favoured by SCCO and CCHQ; the word is that under the Carlaw the Scottish party has become more of a branch office than it was under Davidson. No wonder the Times editorial on Saturday sang Carlaw’s praises, treating his election as leader as a bygone conclusion.

By contrast, Ballantyne is a newbie, a rank outsider, with a solid life before politics in the NHS, business and community work, the latter inspiring her entry into council politics. #TeamJackson points to their man’s experience – “a safe pair of hands”. But that’s precisely the problem for those #BackingBallantyne: his experience is all in the goldfish bowl of the Scottish Conservatives’ higher echelons. “A safe pair of hands” is not going to snatch victory from Nicola Sturgeon in 2021. Jeremy Hunt was touted as a similar “safe pair of hands” against Boris Johnson in the election for UK leader.

Whether the Scottish Conservative Party – under Ballantyne or Carlaw – can catch the populist, anti-establishment wave as Johnson has done in England remains to be seen, but a distinct opportunity is now emerging in Scotland. The SNP has ridden this wave for a long time and with great skill, but it is now in danger of fragmenting: after a decade in power the SNP is the establishment par excellence. More and more SNP supporters have become disenchanted with Nicola Sturgeon and her cadre of professional politicians who have failed to deliver independence or even much consolation in government since Alex Salmond’s freebies on uni fees, prescriptions, social care and bridges. When Brexit ceases to be a distraction, dangling Indyref2 convinces fewer and fewer that paradise is round the corner and the SNP does nothing to rescue its dismal domestic performance, a backlash will be inevitable. SNP and Labour voters will be seeking a new political home.

In my view, Ballantyne and her supporters have a sense of this populist opportunity because they are themselves expressions of it within the right. Does Ballantyne have the energy, imagination and courage to grasp this opportunity and broaden it beyond natural Conservative voters? It wouldn’t just mean challenging party control in Edinburgh and London; a Scottish inflection of Johnson’s blue collar agenda would be impossible without a significant break with Westminster.

* See pages 4 & 20 of the full report downloadable at 

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN05125

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