"This party has to stick together or it is nothing!"
Murdo Fraser MSP, being ironic.
To my delighted surprise, the hustings was a really good event. I ended up writing about it at sufficient length to split it off from my conference diary, and my report is below.
Candidates had to outline their vision in short speeches, then take questions, then summate at the end. The candidates drew lots on the speaking order, and Murdo Fraser went first. This was something of a mixed blessing.
Fraser is a good speaker, and of the opening speeches it was he who roused cheers and applause from the audience (although not, I should point out, for his own proposals). But once Carlaw, Mitchell and Davidson took the stand the direction of travel was clear. Each of them, in more or less explicit terms, outright rejected his separation proposal.
One thing I really noticed about Murdo was how far he's having to play the 'no change' card in order to try to sell his main idea. It was he who specifically name-checked the national leader when he spoke of 'electing MPs to support David Cameron in Westminster.' In his speech he also made many allusions to the old Unionist Party, indicating that this could well be the new party's name. His campaign manager the previous night had seemed substantially less keen on it, however, and the Scotsman lists several (terrible) alternative proposals that he is apparently considering.
The denial ran deeper than that, though. Fraser mentioned several times how he wanted 'a new political direction for the party' and that his proposal was 'more than just a name change'. Yet he also consistently argued that the problem didn't lie with the Scottish Conservative leadership, activists or policies.
The tension is apparent: if Fraser genuinely thinks there's been nothing holding the party back except its image with Scots, surely his proposal is primarily an image makeover. On the other hand, if he believes his own rhetoric that a fundamentally new direction is required, how can he heap praise upon policies, strategies and strategists that he clearly considers deficient? It appears as if he's either trying to claim his name-change is more fundamental than it is, or trying not to insult the party faithful so they'll vote for him.
As he had gone first, Fraser had no opportunity to respond as each of the other candidates in turn rallied their supporters and went on the attack. This trend only got worse over the course of the debate. With one or two exceptions, questioners were all pre-occupied with Mr Fraser's proposal and were almost universally hostile. After one particular round of answers from the panel the Chair felt moved to offer Fraser a second response, that he might try to pry out some of the knives the others had planted in him in their responses.
Yet it was to no avail. Although ToryHoose's exit poll (which I sadly had to miss) found a percentage-point lead for Murdo, the problem is that all of the remaining two-thirds of respondents are hostile to his core proposal. If he wins, but fails to get his split ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Scottish Party, he will be left at the end of what will undoubtedly be a bitter and divisive road without a shred of credibility left, just as Salmond is gearing up for the referendum. Yet despite Fraser's supposed position as the front-runner, chances of this scenario appear to be narrowing - the Telegraph's Alan Cochrane describes his chances of winning as "akin to pushing water uphill."
To me, the hero of the hour was Jackson Carlaw. I'm personally in the Davidson camp, because I think she represents the sort of change the Scottish Conservatives need, but I hope that if she wins she finds Mr Carlaw a key position in the party. A confident and charismatic public speaker, instantly likeable, with a firm grasp of the issues and the most sophisticated and effective critique of Murdo's proposals to boot, he's a debater I can see going toe-to-toe with Alex Salmond and an asset any northern leader would be a fool to squander.
Ruth Davidson performed credibly, emphasising her youth and the new perspective she hopes to bring to the party. Her slogan - "Scottish. Conservative. Unionist." - makes her position on the name-changing proposal perfectly clear, and she was probably the least-subtle knife-wielder of the three. One perception I left with was that she is much better at being generally positive - for example talking up the party's future - than being specifically hostile i.e. attacking Fraser. If she wins, the job of going toe-to-toe with Salmond would probably need to be deputised.
Davidson went into the meeting having recently gained the support of David Mundell, who has declared that he'll have no part of a new party and will stand as a Conservative regardless. Whether or not a growing perception of Davidson as the 'establishment' candidate - ironic, given her recent election - will help or hinder her campaign remains to be seen.
I felt a little sorry for Margaret Mitchell. I've been in her shoes - nervous and under-prepared, stumbling over lines, repeating points and casting around for things to say. Difference is, I did that when I was asked to speak at the University Debating Union at an hour's notice, not when I was running for leadership of a party at that party's annual conference.
As the apparent arch-unionist candidate, I had expected to like Mitchell. Her politics might still be brilliant, for all I know. But she is not leadership material. She's a quiet and nervous public speaker who cannot command a room or project an argument. Sending her into battle against Salmond would be like rowing out to sea in a sieve.