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Davidson's Devo Panel under fire

TORY leader Ruth Davidson has been accused of merely paying lip service to the promise of more powers for Holyrood, after it emerged her party's high-profile devolution group has not even set a date for its first meeting.

Announced with a fanfare by Davidson in March, the Devolution Panel is supposed to show the Scottish Tories are "committed to a new path" of devolving major tax powers.

The group is chaired by Lord Strathclyde, former leader of the House of Lords, and includes Tory MSPs Annabel Goldie and Alex Fergusson, plus two academic advisers.

However, the Sunday Herald has learned that not only has the panel yet to meet, it has not even arranged its first gathering.

Fergusson, an advocate of more powers for Holyrood, last night admitted he would have liked the group to have met by now, but said he was confident Lord Strathclyde would "produce the goods" by the time the group was due to report in the autumn.

He said: "I have yet to be informed of its first meeting. I would imagine the plan is to meet in the [parliamentary] recess when we have more time to spare. I would like to have met – of course I would – but I have confidence in the person who's chairing it and we will make our deliberations on time and on budget as they say."

The devolution group's inactivity has added to an outburst of unhappiness among Tory MSPs over Davidson's leadership two weeks ahead of the Scottish party conference.

In recent days, a series of MSPs have briefed against her, prompted by two disastrous performances at First Minister's Questions. In one, Davidson astonished her own side by trying to score points against Alex Salmond over the EU, allowing the First Minister to maul her over David Cameron's own internal problems over an in-out referendum on Europe.

Last week, Davidson made an ageist quip about ex-Labour chancellor Denis Healey, dismissing the 95-year-old as a "nonagenarian".

Disquiet over Davidson has exposed deeper worries. Murdo Fraser, her leadership rival in 2011, last week questioned whether the party is doing enough to revive the centre-right in Scotland.

One senior Tory said the lack of work by the devolution group was evidence of more drift. "It's absolutely essential if the party is to make political progress that we are seen to be serious about the issue of devolving greater financial powers to the Scottish Parliament," he said. "It's disappointing we seem to be dragging our feet on this."

Another senior Tory said Davidson would have to wow activists at the Tory conference in Stirling in a fortnight if she was to avoid a leadership crisis.

"It's going to be a key moment. Even people who voted for her as leader are grumbling. There's frustration at the lack of progress and her FMQ performance. Lots of people in the party say [Labour leader] Johann Lamont is doing a better job against Salmond."

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing said: "This just shows how the Tories haven't changed their spots. It's like 1979 all over again and they have no intention of delivering more powers for Scotland."

A Scottish Tory spokesman said: "The panel is still being added to, which is why that first meeting hasn't yet taken place."

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