Sketch: Ballantyne's Day is coming
Smears, leaks and allegations of “secret recordings”. Some may not have been particularly surprised to see the Scottish Tory leadership campaign take on the air of a low-level Balkan power-struggle, but surely no one expected it to happen so quickly.
For anyone unfamiliar with the contest – and why would you be? – there are two candidates for the job: Jackson Carlaw, the favourite, and Michelle Ballantyne, the challenger.
And Ballantyne really is quite challenging, at least for her opponent, even if at this stage the contest does seem to be fairly lop-sided, with Carlaw enjoying the support of dozens of MSPs and MPs, and Ballantyne backed up by controversial former MP Ross Thomson, alongside the Fife councillor best known for calling the First Minister a “drooling hag” and a “walking horror show” on social media.
But then what does that matter? One member, one vote. She could really do this. The winner will be announced on 14 February and Ballantyne’s Day could soon be upon us.
At least leadership candidate Jackson Carlaw had the backing of the interim leader, Jackson Carlaw
And wouldn’t that be lovely? Of course, the allegations of secret bugging – or possibly wiretapping – refer to Ballantyne’s belief that she was spied on during a recent debate, after The Sun reported her announcing she’d been talking to “an expert” who told her of a report on the benefits of climate change, which was “being suppressed”.
Even beyond the idea of secretly recording your internal rivals – very much a Labour leadership contest move – the story is fascinating. Ballantyne got wind of a suppressed report on a controversial topic, chose to allude to its existence publicly, and then complained when people outside the meeting heard about it. How deep does this thing go?
Well, regardless of dirty tricks, it has now become clear that Ballantyne has the ability to radically reform the state of the Conservative Party in Scotland, in much the same way that a wrecking ball has the ability to radically reform the state of a house. And, most entertainingly, she really doesn’t seem to care in the slightest.
But then maybe that’s actually very unfair. After all, at least she does have ideas.
For example, her first idea is to address the “policy vacuum” at the heart of her party. “Last year, the Scottish Conservatives were handicapped by a policy vacuum that did a disservice to the incredible candidates we fielded across the country,” she explained, in the manner of someone calmly talking you through plans to saw off their own nose due to an ongoing dispute with their face. “Under my leadership, the Scottish Conservatives will become the new home for aspirational, blue-collar policy development.”
Wow. There’s a new thinktank in town: The Michelle Ballantyne School of Aspirational Policy Development. But anyway, that was kind of the plan, Michelle. The vacuum was the whole point, given the alternative was to fill it with stuff like defending UK welfare policy. Or, worse, start ranting about how poor people shouldn’t be having so many kids.
Oh wait. That’s awkward. Well, anyway, it was left to a terrified-looking Jackson Carlaw to respond, with the Eastwood MSP using his own interview to boast: “I’m always impressed by people who find the courage of their convictions after the event, but have little to say about it beforehand.”
He said he was impressed, but it came across as if he wasn’t really impressed. It came across as though he was deeply rattled, to be honest, though he denied this, claiming he was “absolutely confident” of victory, which is one of those things that become less convincing the second they are said out loud.
Actually, he said, he was worried Ballantyne had made a “huge mistake” in criticising the party’s election strategy, which “the Prime Minister approved”, arguing it amounted to an “attack on activists” as well as Boris Johnson.
An attack on activists and an attack on the leader. It was good of Carlaw to warn her, when you think about it. But apparently, he had no choice, with the interim leader explaining, “it is important I call that out”. So at least leadership candidate Jackson Carlaw had the backing of the interim leader, Jackson Carlaw. If he can win the support of former deputy leader Jackson Carlaw then he will surely have the whole thing sown up.
Or so you might think. But there was one problem for Carlaw. Ballantyne was back, this time accusing him of “settling scores and closing down debate”. It was a good move, with the comments drawing headlines, while also helping to settle scores and close down the debate.
And the press, understandably, chalked this one up as an “escalation” in the debate, though in reality, Ballantyne is a walking escalation. She is a one-woman escalator.
And so, again, Carlaw hit back – though it was increasingly hard to tell who was responding to who at this point – to claim Ballantyne was the only member of the Scottish shadow cabinet who had never submitted a “single policy proposal”.
Well, sitting on top of a tank and riding buffalos is probably looking pretty good by now, to be honest. But then why would Ballantyne bother suggesting policy, in a policy vacuum? It’s a bit like space, or a Scots Tory leadership contest, for that matter. No one can hear you scream.