Voting For A New Britain: Tory lawyer thrives in the `job from hell'

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the job from Hell. Who would want to be leader of the Scottish Tories after the party's obliteration north of the border at the general election?

When the Edinburgh lawyer David McLetchie stepped into the breach, not many rated his chances. Not only did he come with baggage - Sir Michael Forsyth, the much-disliked former secretary of state for Scotland, was a mentor - but he had never been an elected politician.

Inside and outside the party doom merchants warned that the balding, bespectacled Mr McLetchie, a contemporary of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, at Edinburgh University, was too uncharismatic to stand any chance of gluing back together the shattered Scottish Tories.

But Mr McLetchie, 46, has been the surprise of a less than scintillating campaign. Suspicions that he, of all the party leaders, was having a good election are supported by polls showing a late surge for the Tories, originally forecast to trail in fourth but who may now push the Liberal Democrats into that position.

The Tories, still pretty much a spent political force in Scotland, did not have much of a media grilling during the campaign but, even allowing for that, Mr McLetchie has proved, in debates and elsewhere, more than a match for the other main party leaders. And a successful campaign seems to have consolidated his position within a party trying to shake off its image as a branch office of the troubled and far more bitterly divided English Tories. The novice leader's progress must make the hapless William Hague rather wistful. As well as Mr McLetchie's competence, the Tories have provided other surprises, for no one would have predicted that it would be the Conservatives who would inject some fun into the proceedings.

It was not just the party's helicopter campaign trips that seduced journalists. Even slumming it on the Tory mini-bus it was clear that, in the age of soundbite and spin, Mr McLetchie was a breath of fresh air.

The vast majority of Scots will still shun the party at the polls but many seemed rather charmed by the smarm-free manner of a man who is not yet really a proper politician.

In Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, Mr McLetchie was asked if the Tories expected to do better in the Scottish poll than the general election. "It would be hard to do worse," he observed. And when he began chatting to another voter he called out to journalists, with exaggerated excitement, to come quickly: he had indeed found a Scot still willing to vote Conservative.

Perhaps it was partly hysterical relief, for campaigning this time was easier. Two years ago Tory canvassers invariably had doors slammed in their faces. "You needed a thick skin to walk up the path," recalls Mr McLetchie.

The Scots, perhaps because they are such suckers for a loser (even a Conservative), have turned pussy cat.

The Tories were the only party that had to be dragged screaming into devolution. Mr McLetchie sees nothing incon-sistent in the surge of Scottish Tory "enthusiasm" for the Parliament now it is a reality. "There was no question of us picking up our ball and going off in a huff," he says.

Ironically, the PR-elected parliament is what will provide the party with an elected base upon which to rebuild. Mr McLetchie says the Scottish Tories will use that to fight full-blown independence.