Alex Fergusson's elevation to Presiding Officer at Holyrood, expected by a secret vote of MSPs this afternoon, would help Scottish Conservatives prove they are in with the devolution brickwork.

They have struggled to motivate their own membership into campaigning for seats in an institution the party had long opposed, making it all the harder to impress target voters. Mr Fergusson may have to give up his party loyalty to help counter that.

He joined the Tories only 12 years ago, claiming he had previously been sympathetic to devolution. The surge in his Tory vote in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, rising from a majority of 99 over the SNP in 2003 to 3333 this month, shows signs of life in Scottish Toryism. Likewise in Roxburgh and Berwickshire, where John Lamont stunned LibDems by ousting former minister Euan Robson.

Add in Annabel Goldie's personal success in a campaign that projected her as a big personality and a straight-talker. Yesterday, she was claiming to have been first to see the potential for minority government, saying Tories are eager to work with the SNP administration on drugs policy and business rates.

But all this is to mask the true Scottish Conservative result on May 3. They hate to be told they have been flatlining for 10 years, but this was worse. The party went backwards, down by one seat in total, even losing ground in share of the regional vote to a new low below 14%.

The party failed to win Dumfries, its top target. Perth and North Tayside seats, which should have been next in line, instead saw SNP majorities grow. Councillor numbers were expected to go up much more under the proportional voting system, but they only rose from 122 to 143, including a meagre one in Glasgow.

While the leadership might prefer to avoid a post mortem, others are filling that vacuum, including a lively discussion on the ConservativeHome website, where there is support for a split of the Scottish Tories from the rest of Britain.

That idea has backing within David Cameron's leadership team at Westminster. It was leaked during the campaign, presumably by someone who thought, rightly, that the timing would ensure both Mr Cameron and Miss Goldie had to rubbish it.

But the idea won't go away so easily. Frustrated party activists want to confront the Scottish Conservatives as "a contaminated brand". While Mr Cameron is changing perceptions of Conservatism in England, the Scottish variety may be too damaged for that.

While Scottish Tories already have considerable autonomy, they want to make a clean break with the Westminster hierarchy.

Members would want to keep a vote in Westminster leadership contests. They are naturally conservative and unionist, as their membership cards would suggest, and a split goes against the grain for many. But being permanently out of government goes against the grain for Tories as well, and they need to find a route back from the wilderness that goes beyond hoping for the best.