Sketch: Escaping the Scottish Tory conference
Sketch: Leaving was all the rage at the Scottish Tory conference
It was 11am on the first day of the Scottish Conservative conference and David Mundell was trying to find an escape route. Shuffling onto the balcony above the stage at the SEC, the Scottish Secretary looked around at the auditorium below and the seats sloping up into the roof above.
“How do I get out?” he asked. Laughing nervously to himself, he added, perhaps unnecessarily, “I am trying to get out.”
Peter Chapman was on stage below, aggrieved by the SNP’s “politics of grievance”. Mundell started climbing the stairs up to the level above. Halfway up he stopped, turned around, and came back down. He left through the same door by which he had arrived. It seemed an odd move, but it was hard to blame the man – after all, leaving is all the rage at the moment.
Theresa May had kicked things off with a warning. “The SNP play politics as though it were a game,” she said. “But politics is not a game and the management of devolved public services in Scotland is too important to be neglected.”
This is true, politics isn’t a game. Or, not a fun one, anyway. It’s a bit like Risk in that sense. Moving on, the PM listed “the social, scientific and economic developments” fostered by the Union – things like the steam engine, penicillin and Harry Potter (that really was her list).
“We should never be shy of making that positive case for the Union,” she said, “because logic and facts are on our side.” She looked pleased. It must be a relief to have facts on your side for once, rather than relying on lies on the side of a bus.
MEP Ian Duncan arrived around midday to explain how elections and referendums are like elephants. “Deal with the first elephant first and the second elephant second,” he advised, sagely, “but you had better keep your eye on that second elephant, because my goodness, you can really end up on your backside if you are not paying attention.”
That second elephant – the EU referendum – has reignited calls for independence, he explained, though there are still obstacles for the SNP. The nationalists, he said, do not like the idea of there being “a queue” to join the EU. “It’s a bit like being in a crowded bar. Just when you are trying to get that drink, how many times have you stood there and thought, ‘Why has no one noticed I am here? I have the money in my hand, and they still won’t acknowledge me, or let me buy a drink’.”
“In my view, it’s a beauty contest,” Duncan expanded, “and all it takes is for someone not to like the look of you and you can’t get a drink. That can be a dry, dry evening for anyone.”
It was refreshing to see someone explain international relations with such panache. You get attacked by two vicious elephants consecutively – dodging the first but not the second – then go to a bar where, dazed, you offend the staff by waving money at them, then realise you are not in a bar but a beauty contest. But the prize in the beauty contest is still alcohol. It wasn’t so much a speech as someone recounting some awful hallucination – though to be fair, that could apply to most political messaging.
And after that it was hard to keep focused. Gordon Lindhurst came the next day with a frankly hellish speech. Reading slowly from the piece of paper in front of him, he said: “It is the Conservatives who provide an alternative to this dismal, three-trick SNP pony,” before asking himself, “three tricks, you say? Well, that is probably a misuse of the word trick. Or possibly the word three.” A misuse of the word three? What did that even mean? How do you ‘misuse’ the word three?
If three and trick were the wrong words, Lindhurst was just left with the word pony. It was horrible to see, like watching a ventriloquist’s dummy come to life, strangle its operator and proceed to read out a dialogue meant for two people.
“All the SNP talk about is independence, Brexit, and the UK Government,” Lindhurst said. By this point, the party had spent literally two days talking about independence. If one was hoping for variety, it would be left to the leader.
“The truth is,” Ruth Davidson confided, “I’d be the happiest woman alive if I didn’t have to talk about the constitution one more time.” That was understandable. And, as it happened, she only mentioned independence seven times and the SNP 32 times in half-an-hour. That’s only once every minute.
“We’re not a club,” she said, “we’re a party that aspires to govern for all of Scotland.” Continuing in the same theme, she argued: “You get no points for what you’ve done. No points for patting yourselves on the back.”
Great. Politics is not a game and the Scottish Conservatives are not a games club, and so a points-based system is irrelevant.
Davidson finished and the crowd filed out, only to be confronted by a small group of protestors. “Tory scum, shame on you,” they shouted. The chant went on and on, forming a fine, primal rhythm.
Two old ladies, waiting for a taxi, watched on. “Are you the Tory scum?” they enquired, politely. They had been at the nearby quilting show. Getting into a cab, the pair were whisked past the demo and left.
Hopefully David Mundell found his way out too.
Sketch: Douglas Ross has been talking about drinking cold sick out of a pint glass
Exclusive interview with Mike Russell, the Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe
The Scottish Government is likely to face a legal challenge after its alternative Brexit bill is passed by MSPs
Professor James Mitchell on the challenge of making predictions in an age of political turbulence