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Small steps will not be enough for Scots Tories

THERE was an uncomfortable moment at the end of Ruth Davidson's speech marking the anniversary of her election as Scottish Conservative leader this week.

Taking questions from the 100 or so party members in attendance she was asked: "Shouldn't we change our name?"

Ms Davidson did well to conceal her irritation.

A year ago that was the issue at the heart of the leadership contest – and her victory over Murdo Fraser, who proposed scrapping the party and creating a new centre-right brand, was supposed to have ended the debate once and for all.

The fact it reared its head again on Monday speaks volumes about the state of the Scots Tories. The feeling persists, even among stalwarts who have been impressed with the new leader, that something – something big – has to change to revive their fortunes.

It wasn't to be found in the speech she delivered.

Tentative proposals to free schools from local authority control, a change in energy policy to halt "the march of the turbines", a pledge to toughen-up non-custodial sentences – it was traditional Tory fare and entirely predictable.

And then the headline-grabber: a commitment to consider deeper income tax cuts than the penny off the basic rate already promised if the party finds itself in a position to wield Holyrood's new financial powers after the 2016 election.

Will it work? Unfortunately for Ms Davidson the tax cut pledge came on the day an Ipsos MORI poll for Oxfam revealed an appetite among Scots for higher taxes on the better-off. Even among the better-off. By 2016 Scottish Government spending cuts which have been postponed until after the referendum will be biting harder than ever. Tax cuts may well sound unrealistic, to put it mildly. The SNP lost no time in pointing out that a 2p income tax cut would wipe £1billion off the Government's budget. Labour, meanwhile, believes the squeeze will be so bad in four years that people will accept the need to abandon popular universal entitlements such as free university tuition and free prescription charges for all.

The Scottish Tories, then, risk looking out of touch. They are in danger of retreating to a place where they will merely shore up their existing core vote, nothing more, and that's where they have been bumping along for years.

Before he took power David Cameron hugged hoodies and harnessed huskies to show he was serious about de-toxifying his "nasty party". In the US the Republicans have already begun a period of soul searching after discovering they appeal to far too narrow a cross-section of the electorate. The Scottish Conservatives, too, have an image problem and a serious demographic difficulty, although, unlike the Republicans, it is based on the advancing seniority of activists and supporters. There is, however, no sign yet of a radical attempt to address these problems.

It might all change. Ms Davidson's performances at First Ministers' Questions have received mixed reviews but she acquitted herself well, most judges felt, on Question Time recently and an award by gay rights group Stonewall helped boost her profile. The party is developing policy and making efforts to re-energise its grassroots. It has claimed success with a "Conservatives Friends of the Union" referendum initiative. Helpfully, it has a strong press team at Holyrood.

Ms Davidson is also planning a reshuffle. Her defeated leadership rival Mr Fraser may be tempted back on to the front bench team where many feel his talents are needed.

Whether all this can add up to a proper revival for a party which managed to win 10 seats in Scotland even in Margaret Thatcher's last election of 1987 remains to be seen. A year in to the job, the leader spoke of taking "small steps" back after decades of decline. What the Tories really need is something to give them a giant leap.

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