As ministers, MPs and party workers arrived in Inverness for the annual Scottish Conservative conference, which begins today, WED,senior officials said they would question councillors, candidates and local activists to uncover why the party won just 13.7 per cent of the vote, its lowest share ever.
Sir Michael Hirst, chairman of the Scottish Tories who will co-ordinate the inquiry, said he wanted to 'take the pulse' of Scotland before the crucial European elections next month.
'Tory voters either abstained or voted for other parties last Thursday,' he said. 'The challenge we face - and it is a huge challenge because the results were very poor - is to win them back. Before we begin thast task we have to find out what their real concerns are.'
The defeat in the local elections, which left the Tories with just 31 seats, exceeded the party's worst fears. Computer projections based on the results, which indicate that the Conservatives could lose all but two of their Scottish MPs at the next general election, have shocked senior officials.
Grassroots activists blame the row over plans to reform local government and remove the water industry from local authority control for the poor showing. Ministers, they argue, should re-examine the proposals to shake up the water industry, which have proved unpopular even among traditional Tory voters. Privately, MPs say new policy initiatives north of the border may have to be shelved following last week's drubbing, but they insist that existing proposals will remain unchanged. Phil Gallie, MP for Ayr,who had a majority of just 85 votes at the last general election, said: 'Our policies for local government and the water industry are the right policies for Scotland . . . They are producing results and we are confident they will prove popular. We are not going to abandon what we believe in.'
The party's problems have been compounded in recent days by reports that John Major , the prime minister, is grooming Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, for the post of Tory party chairman. Moving Mr Lang from the Scottish Office would create difficulties appointing a successor because the party has only 11 MPs in Scotland.
If Mr Major rejected the front-runner, Michael Forsyth, the right-wing MP for Stirling, he could be forced to turn to David Maclean,minister of state at the Home Office minister, who. Although he is a Scot, Mr Maclean is a Scot but represents an English constituency. and His appointment would renew criticisms that the Government runs of a 'colonial-style' administration.