THE Scottish Tory leadership race is in crisis with three of the four candidates demanding an independent inquiry into allegations of "party bias" in favour of Ruth Davidson, who has high-profile backing.

The campaign managers for the trio – Murdo Fraser, Jackson Carlaw and Margaret Mitchell – have written jointly to chairman Andrew Fulton calling for a probe into claims Davidson has received an unfair advantage in the increasingly bitter race.

In a sign of the civil war raging within the Tories, John Lamont MSP, Davidson’s campaign manager, hit back at what he called a “deliberate, vicious and frankly desperate” bid to smear her, and accused others of being prepared to embarrass the party in a “shocking display of naked self-interest”. The extraordinary developments suggest whoever replaces Annabel Goldie as leader on November 4 will inherit a party riven by internal feuds.

Though only elected as a Glasgow list MSP five months ago, Davidson has support in the Tory hierarchy, with backing from grandees such as Lords Forsyth and Sanderson, and Scotland’s sole Tory MP, David Mundell.

Earlier this month the Scottish party’s top spin doctor, Ramsay Jones, was suspended after attending a meeting of campaign strategists at Davidson’s Glasgow home, despite being advised to stay neutral. At a hustings last week, Davidson agreed under hostile questioning that the gathering had discussed the campaign. She said no more about the matter. It is understood she had been advised it would be imprudent to discuss Jones’s situation as it concerned his contract of employment. It is also understood that those claiming “institutional bias” have been told they must produce evidence to support their allegations.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has launched an investigation after Davidson’s campaign team contacted Tory party members via private email addresses.

Two of Davidson’s rivals, Fraser and Carlaw, asked for an external body to oversee the ballot of the party’s 8500 members. Scottish Tory HQ refused the request.

Now the Sunday Herald can reveal that Davidson’s rivals are calling for an interim inquiry while the contest is ongoing.

The decision followed a conference call between all four campaign managers and Fulton on Wednesday about disputed comments by Davidson at a leadership hustings in Glasgow two days earlier. After the meeting failed to clear the air, the managers for Davidson’s rivals sent a letter to Fulton calling for an independent probe.

It is understood the party has asked for evidence of alleged bias.

ONE campaign source said: “There are people in the party paying scant regard to the proper procedures in an internal election”. There had been a “greying and blurring” of the need for neutrality, the source added.

A senior party source said: “We are all extremely concerned about these allegations. If any of them are proved to be correct the repercussions will be unfathomable.”

Despite being on political home turf for Monday’s hustings, Davidson received hostile questions from several members about controversies surrounding her campaign, including having to sack her Holyrood assistant Ross McFarlane for drunkenly setting fire to an EU flag in the street at two in the morning.

Reacting to the call for an inquiry, John Lamont said: “The latest attempt to try to smear Ruth Davidson and her campaign with unsubstantiated, false and potentially defamatory accusations is astonishing and deeply depressing.

“No one should be in any doubt that this is a deliberate, vicious and, frankly, desperate attempt to discredit Ruth in the eyes of our members and the general public.

“Further, it underlines the hugely disappointing fact that some people are prepared to embarrass the party in a shocking display of naked self-interest. The accusations that there has been institutional bias by officials within the party towards Ruth and her campaign are utterly false. Those now pressing for an investigation have produced no evidence to support their accusations.

“Despite the growing number and frequency of personal attacks on Ruth, she has been determined not to be brought down to this level. For the sake of the party, we would appeal to all to withdraw these unsubstantiated accusations, to desist from any further attempts to smear Ruth.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “We do not comment on internal party affairs.”

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