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Reserved but no reservations: the Conservatives are out to win

Louise Wilson

The Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto launch was a rather reserved affair. Perhaps little else could be expected from its usual demographic, but the morning passed with little drama… or even excitement.

Despite the room being jam-packed – standing room only for press – Ruth Davidson’s address received only a polite smattering of applause. Low level chatter filled the room afterwards, markedly different from the enthusiasm seen at other launches. Compared to the slide action from Willie Rennie or the grassroots buzz of Green activists, the Conservative launch felt more like another milestone on its quietly confident march towards the election. No smoking gun is needed when the party is already a contender for second place.

The main focus of the event was on the party’s ambition to become the lead opposition to the SNP. Yet aside from explicitly setting out the desire to repeal Named Person legislation and calling for a positive, pro-Union case to be made, manifesto highlights tended to focus on those areas where there was little disagreement with the probable next government.

Boost the mental health funding? Check. More flexible childcare arrangements? Check. Even the parties’ proposals on the Scottish rate of income tax are remarkably similar. Meanwhile, Ruth Davidson slams into Labour for backing the SNP in the previous session on a number of issues.

It’s a clever marketing campaign.

Cast a spotlight on Labour’s currently weakened position; plaster the ever-popular Ruth Davidson all over party branding; don’t make a fuss over some of the Conservatives’ more controversial policies. Based on polling over recent weeks, the approach appears to be working – the gap between the Conservatives and Labour draws closer.

The old joke about the number of Tories and pandas in Scotland? This has never been the case in Holyrood, but that is being challenged more than ever this election. Any increase in seats come May can be placed firmly at the door of Ruth Davidson, who has worked hard to move away from the image of the ‘nasty party’ and separate herself enough from the UK Government to criticise it, but still close enough to lay claim to any perceived victories.

Indeed, Ms Davidson’s popularity far outstrips that of her party overall (although the gap is narrowing). This explains her placement at the forefront of the campaign, not dissimilar to the SNP’s tactic with Nicola Sturgeon. But this strategy has come at the dilution of the party’s centre-right ideology – or at least these policies aren’t being given the limelight for now.

Perhaps session five will see a swing back to the business-as-usual Conservative party, or perhaps the change is indicative of the lurch to the left currently being felt throughout Scottish politics. But whatever happens, one thing is clear: the party is on track to win its largest slate of seats since the Scottish Parliament begun.

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