Why do only two Scottish Tory MSPs want the top job?

In 2011, there was a four-way contest to become Scottish Conservative leader, won by Ruth Davidson.

Why do only two Scottish Tory MSPs want the top job? STV
Tories: Jackson Carlaw and Michelle Ballantyne standing for leader.

The post-election leadership clearout is well under way.

The highest-profile contest is for the UK Labour leadership, and the party’s sole MP in Scotland Ian Murray is chasing the deputy leadership.

The Lib Dems are looking for a new “candidate for Prime Minister” after Jo Swinson lost her East Dunbartonshire seat. Almost half of their parliamentary party is at least refusing to rule themselves out of running.

In Scotland, Labour needs a new deputy leader after Lesley Laird lost out to an independent candidate who had been suspended from the SNP.

And the Scottish Conservatives have to replace Ruth Davidson – although to some of them she is irreplaceable.

She quit in August, maybe because she didn’t like Boris Johnson’s leadership and Brexit, maybe because she liked spending time with her baby boy, maybe because she had just had enough. Whatever her reasons, she left her party in a much better state than she found it.

In 2011, she became one of 15 Conservative MSPs, and within a few months leader of a party in a very distant third place. She left the leadership last year with the Scottish Conservatives firmly in second place ahead of Labour, although still a long way behind the SNP.

So, given the improvements in the party’s fortunes you would think there would be a clamour for her job, but when nominations closed on Friday only two MSPs were in for it. Jackson Carlaw and Michelle Ballantyne. 

Neither are really household names, although Jackson Carlaw has been around a long time and should at least be known to most Scottish Conservative members. Michelle Ballantyne is the party’s newest MSP, only getting in on the list after a bit of juggling following the 2017 general election which left a gap on the South of Scotland list for the then-leader of the Conservative group on Scottish Borders Council.

Both are offering policy reviews, both want to cut taxes and both want to reconsider university tuition, which is currently paid for Scottish students by the Scottish Government.

Jackson Carlaw has been Ruth Davidson’s stand-in, taking on Nicola Sturgeon for the last 18 months. He says he wants to spend the next 18 months “taking her down”. Michelle Ballantyne thinks that kind of attack failed at the general election and will not win over new Tory voters.

I’m not going to delve into great detail about either candidate. If you want to, you can look at their leadership campaign websites – teamjackson.scot and ballantyne2020.scot

The question for me is why are there only two candidates from the Conservatives’ 31 MSPs? Last time round there were four candidates out of 15 MSPs and surely, it’s a much more attractive job now than it was then, after Ruth Davidson has done so much of the heavy lifting.

Maybe the answer is that there’s just over a year until the next Scottish Parliament election and things look tough. The Tories lost seats in Scotland to the SNP at last month’s general election. They found Brexit and Boris Johnson hard to sell to voters on the doorsteps.

There is no reason right now to think that will get any easier over the course of the next 16 months. The next Holyrood campaign looks almost certain to focus on demands for indyref2, polarising the debate somewhat between the SNP backing it and the Conservatives blocking it.

Maybe younger Conservative MSPs such as Liam Kerr and Miles Briggs, who were tipped as potential leadership candidates, didn’t fancy it this time round and will save themselves for next time. Maybe others like Murdo Fraser, who lost out to Ruth Davidson last time, think now is not the time (to borrow a favourite phrase of Theresa May, remember her?).

Whatever their reasons for not standing themselves, most are backing Jackson Carlaw as the continuity candidate, rather than Michelle Ballantyne as the surprise candidate (at her launch today, even she sometimes seemed a bit surprised to be a candidate).

We’ll get the result of the ballot of around 11,000 Scottish Conservative members on Valentine’s Day – but, for my money, I don’t think it will be Ballantyne’s day.