RUTH Davidson has challenged her own party over immigration, NHS funding and taxation as part of a pitch to centre-ground Scots ahead of the next Holyrood election.

The Scottish Conservative leader said the UK Tory party needed to drop its migration target and, with the health service at “a tipping point”, put funding it ahead of new tax breaks.

In a speech at Glasgow University, she also said the UK government should renew the “social contract” with more housing, better vocational education and decent social care.

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Setting out a stall to lead the Scottish Government after 2021 while rebuking Theresa May’s administration, she said she wanted to restore faith in “centre-ground values” shared by both Conservative and Labour moderates.

“We need to rebuild consent in our capitalist systems, in our institutions and a liberal way of life,” she said, describing herself as a “centrist politician”.

There was a noticeable lack of references to Scottish independence and the constitution, as Ms Davidson focused instead on bread-and-butter policy matters.

Titled “Building a stronger Britain”, and in large part a prescription for avoiding a Labour victory at the next general election, the speech is likely to fuel speculation that Ms Davidson is eyeing a move to Westminster and a run at the Tory leadership after Mrs May exits.

However Ms Davidson insisted her objective was to become boss at Holyrood.

She said: “As we look ahead to the next election in 2021, myself, my team, the whole party, needs to show, not that we have a plan to be a strong counterbalance to government, but that we are a credible force to run the government.

“And that requires us to think more deeply about the Scotland we want to help build - not just for today or tomorrow, but five years, ten years, twenty years time.”

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She said that in Scotland she wanted more public-private collaborations, with academia and business developing new technologies such as artificial intelligence, and the creation of an Institute of E-Commerce for Scotland to help firms sell and market themselves online.

But she also lectured the Westminster government, saying it must be ready to embrace new possibilities not try to “wind the clock back to some misremembered golden past”.

On Brexit, she said London and Edinburgh must be “brave enough to remember that the free flow of ideas, goods, services, people and capital is always the right way to go”.

She said: “In or out of the EU, our task remains the same: to be open, not closed, to the world around us. To always look outwards for opportunities, not inwards for cold comfort and the apportionment of blame.

“Let me, for example, take the most controversial policy area facing politicians here: the question of immigration.

“We have, in this country, allowed immigration to be a concept that worries us. Some sort of problem to be fixed. A wrong to be corrected. It is a view I believe we need to challenge.

“We should have the confidence to recognise that people from other nations wanting to come to our country is a sign of our success as a vibrant, prosperous culture.”

She said that would not only help the economy but make the country stronger.

“We want EU citizens who live here to stay. I have an interest here: I speak as someone who is about to marry one.”

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Referring to the 2010 Tory target to cut net migration below 100,000 a year, she said: “I see neither the sense nor the need to stick to an immigration figure devised nearly a decade ago, which has never been met and does not fit the requirements of the country.

“Setting an immigration target reduced to the tens of thousands is one thing when unemployment is running over 8 per cent. Refusing to review it when the country nears full employment and sectors are reporting skills shortages is quite another.

“It’s been notable that, since the Brexit vote, polls have shown that concerns over immigration are actually reducing. It is not a side-effect I had foreseen from the vote, but, if sustained, I believe it is a positive one.”

In a dig at Mrs May’s legacy as Home Secretary, she said: “I hope we can create a mature system, which leads to a more settled country... one that respects people and families whose right to live and work here should be unquestioned - like the Windrush families.”

The call to drop the migration target came just after SNP Finance Secretary Derek Mackay told MSPs that if it was ever met, it could cost the Scottish economy £10bn a year in lost GDP by 2040.

On the NHS, Ms Davidson said the Chancellor should put funding it ahead of new tax breaks.

Philip Hammond plans to raise the personal allowance from £11,850 to £12,500 by 2022, and the higher rate income tax threshold from £46,350 to £50,000.

Ms Davidson said that should be an end to it: “As the Darzi review into the future of the health service has made clear, we are now reaching a tipping point.

“And the simple choice is this: if we want to continue to adhere to the principles of our NHS - then we need to find extra funding above and beyond the increases of recent years.

“I very much support the proposal for substantial extra funding across the whole of the UK.

“The obvious question is: where should this money come from?

“My view is this: the UK Government has acted to reduce the tax burden on working families.

“It has honoured its promise to do so. Raising the income tax threshold has reduced taxes for millions of UK workers and has taken thousands out of taxation altogether.

“The UK government has a choice to make. And, if that choice is between extra spending on the NHS or introducing further tax breaks beyond those already promised, I choose the NHS.”

She also repeated her point that young voters were overwhelmingly supporting Labour, not the Conservatives: “We are simply losing the argument. Period”.

She said one way of reconnecting with them was building more affordable housing, with Housing and Infrastructure Agency in Scotland and capturing the uplift in land values given planning permission.

There should also be more vocational and technical education for young people to give them the correct skills, and not make them feel like failures for not going on to sit a degree.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said Ms Davidson offered Scots only division.

He said: “The Tories have presided over nearly a decade of stagnating economic growth and declining living standards – while simultaneously eroding hard-won workers and trade union rights. Ruth Davidson’s dogmatic support for a dangerous and damaging Brexit will only pile further economic misery on Scotland and the whole of the UK.”

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SNP MSP Gillian Martin added: “Ruth Davidson ironically makes a very strong case for how the UK is simply not working for Scotland - whether it comes to their damaging approach to Brexit, immigration, or austerity, the UK Government are actively harming jobs, public services and living standards in Scotland.

“Her calls for more funding have no credibility given that just a few months ago she was demanding tax cuts for the rich that would have cost the health service in Scotland £550m.

"The reality is it’s the Tories who are holding Scotland back. Try as she might, Ruth Davidson can’t just distance herself from her own party’s toxic policies with a handful of warm words.”