Ruth Davidson has launched the Scottish Conservative manifesto with a candid admission that it is not a programme for government but a programme for a strong opposition, and pledged to succeed where Labour has failed in holding the Scottish National party to account.
Starting with a bracing acknowledgement that “the SNP are miles ahead in any poll you care to mention”, while insisting the Conservatives were heading for their best ever result in May’s Scottish elections, Davidson did away with the usual political conventions and told activists in Glasgow she was applying for the vacancy of leader of a strong opposition.
Setting out the manifesto’s 10-point programme for opposition, she insisted a “genuine clash of ideas” in parliament led to better government.
Calling on Scotland’s “strong sense of fair play”, she added: “The Labour party has had nine years, six leaders and no success in holding the SNP to account … it’s time for somebody else to get a go.”
In an appeal to voters across the political spectrum, she said: “I know there is a huge yearning out there for somebody to do that job. And I also know that there are many people who have never voted for us before – or ever thought they’d consider it.”
Underlining her party’s unionist credentials, Davidson pledged to oppose a second Scottish referendum no matter what the outcome of June’s EU referendum. Directly matching the SNP’s plans for a summer independence drive, Davidson announced her own initiative to state the positive case for the union.
“The legacy from the referendum is that we on the pro-UK side have allowed ‘no thanks’ to be seen as a constant negative. If we are to counter the SNP’s constant misinformation, this must change. The case for independence is dead. The case for the union must now be made,” she said.
Beyond the constitution, the manifesto promised to campaign against two controversial SNP policies: the Named Persons Act and cuts to college places.
It called for NHS spending to rise by a minimum of 2% each year, and argued for an additional £300m to be invested in improving mental health treatment over the next parliament.
Davidson also set out plans to build 100,000 new homes during the next five years, including a £1bn pledge to improve energy efficiency in homes. This was immediately welcomed by WWF Scotland, the conservation charity.
The charity’s director, Lang Banks, said: “Their commitment to support all homes to reach a minimum ‘C’ energy performance standard would help the 1.5m households currently living in a cold home. It’s good to see proposals to address the emissions that come from heating, but continued support for nuclear and fracking is a distraction when Scotland could be the EU’s first renewable electricity nation.”
On tax, the key policy battleground between Labour and the SNP, the manifesto offered no surprises, reiterating the support for deficit reduction and insisting it is “vital Scotland retains competitive rates of income tax which are no higher than in the rest of the UK”.
Davidson had been expected to contest the Holyrood elections as the only leader campaigning for cuts in the new Scottish rate of income tax, which came into force at the beginning of April, but was forced to abandon her plans after learning of George Osborne’s intention to make far deeper spending cuts.
The manifesto also pledged to push the SNP to make further savings in the public sector, despite Scotland’s local government association, COSLA, describing the latest round of cuts as “undeliverable”.
It also included plans to amend popular SNP policies on tuition fees and prescription charges, setting a new graduate contribution for tuition fees at £1,500, only payable once the graduate is earning more than £20,000. Davidson has argued that the gradual reintroduction of prescription charges would raise £65m by the end of the next parliament to invest in frontline NHS services.
Spanning new and traditional elements of Tory support, the 48-page document included a pledge to support a review of the Gender Recognition Act as well as to stand up against land reform measures “that undermine individual property rights”.
Davidson’s personal popularity remains strong, and polling for the Times on Tuesday revealed that Scottish voters view her as more genuine, competent and trustworthy than the Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, and believe she would be better at holding the SNP to account.
However, despite the host of fresh candidates being paraded at Wednesday’s manifesto launch, concerns remain over whether Davidson has successfully detoxified the Tory brand in Scotland. The same polling for the Times found that the Conservatives had dropped a point on the constituency vote since last month, falling to 18%, while Labour has gained two, rising to 21%. On the regional list vote, the Conservatives were also down one point and Labour up two, putting them at 18% and 19% respectively. The SNP stood at 50% in the constituency vote and 45% on the regional list.
This article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th April 2016 15.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010