Leaderless Scots Tories look to Europe as way out of the mire

At a garden party in Lanarkshire this weekend, Scottish Conservatives will be searching for a way out of the mire that engulfs them. Ironically, those attending will be looking with a Euro-friendly demeanour towards a role model in Germany's Christian Social Union.

The option of becoming a independent Unionist party - similar to the right-wing, regional CSU which dominates Bavaria while supporting Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats at federal level - will be considered by the Tory rump left after the election cull.

Arthur Bell, chairman of the Scottish Tory Reform Group, has commissioned a study of the CDU/CSU link, and hopes to have results when up to 80 invited members of the party gather in a marquee at his home near Biggar.

The meeting will be no social gathering: a newspaper survey found that of 38 constituency chairs who responded (there are 72 seats in Scotland), only 15 said the party should continue to oppose home rule; eight backed support for devolution and 15 said there should be no party line in this autumn's referendum on Labour's Scottish Parliament plan.

Sixteen out of 38 thought the party should break with the past by changing its name, nine of them preferring the Scottish Union Party.

The fact is that Tories north of the border are thinking of splitting from England while remaining Unionist, looking at adopting a federal relationship with London. That they are considering these measures, and a U-turn on their opposition to home rule, shows some desperation - or imaginative thinking - from a leaderless party trying to find whether and how it can salvage a future for itself.

The party has no MPs - down from ten before the election - no Euro-MPs, no local councils under its control and fewer than 70 elected councillors.

John Major has declined to appoint a shadow Scottish Secretary, leaving leadership rivals Michael Howard and William Hague to co-operate on constitutional matters.

The one thing on which members seem united is that things can only get better, but with a power vacuum at the top, they are at odds as to how that could happen.

The three former Scottish secretaries, who lost their seats on 1 May, are all on holiday until later this week. Michael Forsyth has said he is out of politics for the foreseeable future, Malcolm Rifkind intends to return and Ian Lang's intentions are unclear.

Annabel Goldie, the current Scottish Tory party chair has inherited a very difficult job. She took over at the start of the election campaign when her predecessor, Sir Michael Hirst, suddenly resigned, believing - wrongly - that a gay relationship was about to be exposed.

Last week he told the media he had been stitched up and although no naming names, the finger was pointed at Mr Bell for raising the rumours with senior party figures.

In the absence of other leadership, the loudest voices raised in the party have been critical of the anti-devolution line it took while in government.

"I have said for some time that if the party developed an ostrich-like position, it would not see what was going on and it would leave its anatomy exposed in rather tender parts," says Arthur Bell. "That is exactly what happened."

Pressure is building for major reforms to party organisation and policy making, ensuring a stronger role for grassroots members. The party has no say in the election of John Major's successor: This point will be at the forefront of moves to modernise the Conservative power structure throughout the UK.

The Tories are not the only ones trying to find their way in a new political landscape. Without a shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, both the Scottish Liberal Democrats, with ten MPs, and the Scottish Nationalists, second to Labour in share of the vote, are claiming to be the official opposition.