Tory MSP confident of breakaway bid

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Indy Politics

Scottish Conservative leadership candidate Murdo Fraser believes he has the financial backing to overhaul the party despite a warning by its biggest donor about the implications of a "separatist political group".

Mr Fraser officially launched his leadership campaign in Edinburgh today with a bid to dissolve the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (SCUP) in its current form and create a new party built on the principals of "new unionism".

His plans have already provoked criticism from Sir Jack Harvie, the transport tycoon, philanthropist and member of Conservative business group Focus On Scotland, who has been the party's biggest single backer in Scotland over successive financial quarters.

Speaking earlier today, Mr Harvie said: "Those Scottish Conservatives not wishing to follow Mr Fraser into his separatist political group can expect Focus on Scotland to continue funding the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party."

However, speaking at his launch today, Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP Mr Fraser expressed disappointment with Mr Harvie's comments but said he has received support from others in the business community.

He said: "I have, over the summer, spoken to a great many people who are either current donors or former donors, and people who share our values and have never given money to the party.

"I can tell you that among existing donors to the party there is a deep sense of disillusionment, that the money that they have given to the party in recent years has not been well spent.

"They have been paying for successive campaigns with absolutely no political progress and there is a great deal of appetite for a new centre-right force in Scotland amongst people in the business community."

Focus on Scotland is the vehicle which currently provides the majority funding for the SCUP.

However, Mr Harvie said: "This funding arrangement would most certainly not apply to Mr Fraser's breakaway party.

"So, it would be interesting, in fact it would be necessary, to know in terms of openness and transparency from whom Mr Fraser expects to receive funding to finance his separatist political group.

"We are talking here of the need to find £1 million a year to run any new political organisation, comparable to the existing SCUP, in order to fund the numerous election campaigns - general elections, Scottish parliamentary elections, European parliamentary elections and local government elections - in which Mr Fraser's party would have to be actively involved.

"There certainly has been no approach to us from the UK Conservative Party to consider redirecting funding to Mr Fraser's separatist group. Nor do we expect one. Nor would we be likely to react favourably to any such approach. Nor would we entertain any direct approach from Mr Fraser."

Mr Fraser told the 100 or so party members who turned out to his launch meeting - including five of his fellow MSPs - that he had the backing of other business figures.

Among the names he cited were airport car park magnate John McGlynn, engineering tycoon Jim McColl and property developer Robert Kilgour.

Mr Fraser said: "John McGlynn, who has been a party donor in the past, is extremely enthusiastic about the concept.

"Jim McColl, Scotland's leading industrialist, has said some very warm words about our new concept.

"If the Scottish National Party, who are part of the centre-left, can raise enough money to fund their operations from within Scotland, then I believe that a party of the centre-right will be able to do so."

He added: "I'm disappointed that Sir Jack has taken that view but all I can say is that I have spoken to a great many people who are not currently supporters of the party who are prepared to support such a venture."

Mr Fraser pointed to Mr Kilgour, who was standing at the back of the room.

He added: "Robert is a party donor who told me earlier that he is so frustrated with the lack of progress from the Scottish Conservatives that he has stopped giving money to the party in Scotland. He said he would be prepared to come back on board."

Mr Fraser chose Feeling Good, by Nina Simone, as his launch music. The song includes the line: "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, for me."

However, he said he has not discussed his "new dawn" with Prime Minister David Cameron.

He added: "I have discussed it with my team, I have discussed it with very senior members of the government.

"Because it is a leadership election for the Scottish Conservatives, it would be inappropriate for the Prime Minister or other senior figures in the UK party to take a position on this.

"They are happy to leave it to the members of the Scottish Conservative Party to take a decision and they will work with whatever decision they come up with."

He said he had "no doubt" that MPs would welcome members of his new party onto the Tory benches at Westminster.

He added: "We all have a shared ambition to see more MPs in Scotland supporting a Conservative government at Westminster, and they are as hungry to see that as I am."

Mr McGlynn said: "Unless there's a radical change, we could be left with just three MSPs in a couple of terms and, if we continue down that road, I'd give serious consideration about my financial support and whether I'd be a member of the party."

Mr McColl said: "This is a very positive move by Murdo Fraser as it recognises the need for more autonomy for the Scottish Parliament.

"This could be a major turning point for the Scottish Conservatives. I think he will get a lot of support."

Mr Kilgour said: "I am a current donor to the Conservative Party in London but not in Scotland as I have not been happy for some years about the way the party in Scotland has been run.

"If Murdo is successful and becomes leader and implements his planned changes - which the 'name change' is only part of - then I would be prepared to help fund the party in Scotland going forward, both with direct donations and with some of my time persuading others to donate.

"I am confident that there are other business people who feel the same as me and would follow suit."

However, Jackson Carlaw, another leadership contender, said Mr Fraser's failure to win the backing of the Tories' biggest donor in Scotland is "surely a fatal blow" to his leadership campaign.

He added: "This proposal is dividing the party rather than uniting it.

"It ignores the membership's support for the Sanderson Commission proposals for reform. It undermines our fight to defeat Alex Salmond's separatist agenda.

"So, the message to Mr Fraser from members across Scotland is clear: 'You disband if you want to, the party's not for disbanding'."

The Sanderson Commission, led by Tory peer Baron Sanderson of Bowden, was commissioned following the 2010 general election after the party failed to gain any new seats in Scotland.

Lord Sanderson concluded there was no requirement to change the party name but said the Tories must develop a clear, distinct vision for Scotland.

SNP MSP Gordon MacDonald said David Cameron's strategy to reform the party in Scotland is now "in tartan tatters".

He said: "First, his plan to dispatch the Lib Dems to argue the Tory case in Scotland has fallen flat on its face because people know that nowadays the Lib Dems are just a Tory front.

"As a result, Lib Dem support has plummeted to negligible levels, they are in danger of disappearing as a separate force and support for independence has moved ahead.

"Now, David Cameron's plan to revamp the Scottish Tories has descended into a bitter civil war and a backlash from their backwoods in Scotland."

Labour MP Margaret Curran said: "Some people might rejoice at the Scottish Conservative Party disbanding but that won't change what they are about.

"For 20 years many Scots have mistrusted the Tories because of the policies they pursue.

"Changing their name isn't going to make people suddenly think all the Tories stand for is suddenly okay.

"People haven't forgotten what they did last time - and they don't like what they're doing now. That's why David Cameron is even less popular in Scotland than even Margaret Thatcher was."