IT’S not often a leader, in search of a precedent for a rotten government that has outstayed its welcome, picks one led by his own party.

But Jackson Carlaw did just that after being elected Scottish Conservative leader yesterday.

Casting around for a bad lot to set beside Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, Mr Carlaw chose John Major’s wretched government of 1992 to 1997 as the epitome of dysfunction.

“This is a failing government on its last legs,” he said of the SNP. “It’s morally and politically bankrupt. It’s got nothing new to say, nothing new to offer.

“I remember the Major government in 1992 winning an election in the spring and then being behind in the polls and out of office after that. The SNP are in much the same position as we go into next year’s election.

“They are there to be replaced... an exhausted government which is failing on every single domestic front.

“I think for a long time people overlooked that, but actually I think now they want an alternative. You can’t have a one party state. They need to believe there’s something better and it’s now incumbent upon us to be the party that offers that.”

It was a sign Mr Carlaw is not like other Scottish Tory leaders.

He thinks he has a cat’s chance of power, for one thing. Re-election as a strong opposition no longer cuts it.

He has set himself a hard target.

He wants the Scottish Tories to be the largest party at Holyrood next year. If he fails, as he failed to keep most of his MPs at the general election, it’s all over for the Eastwood MSP.

READ MORE: Jackson Carlaw elected new leader of Scottish Conservatives

If the SNP win a majority, it also could be all over for the Union, Boris Johnson and the Tories at Westminster too. So Mr Carlaw is gearing up to go hell for leather into 2021.

On the basis of recent comments, shamelessness is a key part of the plan.

Unpopular policies are to be binned in a sweeping review. Past support for university tuition fees and the two-child benefit cap that gave us the ‘rape clause’ look ripe for the chop.

Mr Carlaw says he wants the best policies for Scotland in the 2020s, not out-dated post-Crash austerity.

Expect a starring role for theft, too.

Large chunks of Mr Carlaw’s speech and media briefing yesterday could have easily appeared in SNP, Labour or Liberal Democrat manifestos.

The word “fairness” kept cropping up. Fairness in education, fairness in healthcare, fairness at work, fairness in housing. “I will lead a party... for which fairness for all is a guiding principle,” announced the former Glasgow Academy pupil.

No shrinking violet when it comes to blocking another independence referendum, Mr Carlaw also said he wanted to “put the constitutional arguments behind us” and focus on what voters want. The Carlaw chameleon is a very adaptable beast.

With Scottish Labour a busted flush and the LibDems in the post-Brexit doldrums, Mr Carlaw evidently hopes his party can occupy swathes of the centre ground in 2021, a generic, unthreatening everyman party that can appeal to voters who would previously have gone elsewhere.

If Boris Johnson can demolish a red wall, maybe Mr Carlaw slice through the central belt. Well, in theory.

The reality does not look good.

The Tories won 31 MSPs in 2016, less than half the SNP’s 63. That’s still more than the base Alex Salmond had going into the 2007 election, when he increased his tally from 27 to 47.

But Labour only had 50 MSPs in 2007, and it only fell to 46. The SNP barely scratched the main party of government. It won by picking up MSPs on regional lists, largely at the expense of the Greens and Socialists.

However 24 of today’s 31 Tory MSPs are on the lists. They’re unlikely to improve much on that.

The Tories need to take seats from the SNP and ramp up their vote share on the list to make serious progress.

That is a very tall order.

Mr Carlaw says he wants to overhaul the list system to get more women and ethnic minority candidates in winnable positions.

Culling the current deadwood won’t hurt, but it won’t do much to the overall numbers. Meddling with the list system is also going to put Mr Carlaw in conflict with the party membership, who covet their ability to determine the list rankings.

He doesn’t have time for a fight.

But the most important number to emerge yesterday was not Mr Jackson’s 76% win, it was the party’s membership. This is usually secret.

READ MORE: Next Scottish Conservative leader warned not to ‘kowtow’ to Boris Johnson 

The last time it surfaced was during the 2011 leadership election, when it was just under 9,000. Almost a decade on, it is now just under 11,000.

The SNP’s is ten times that.

True, Mr Johnson can steer Tory donor cash Mr Carlaw’s way in 2021, but the Tory ground operation is pitiful compared to the SNP’s army.

Mr Carlaw’s comparison with the Major government is also wishful thinking. The Major government was dysfunctional on a truly epic scale.

It was crippled within months by Black Wednesday and the UK’s forced exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

It never regained public trust.

Then there was ‘Back to Basics’, constant sex scandals, brown envelopes and cash-for-questions.

Nicola Sturgeon’s government is certainly showing its age. Its failures are growing and it looks accident-prone. The Derek Mackay scandal has shaken it. Mr Salmond’s trial is round the corner. But it is definitely not on a par with the Major era.

And Mr Carlaw, let’s remember, is no Tony Blair riding to the rescue. He comes reeking of Eau de Brexit and will be tainted by Boris Johnson’s broken promises and screw ups.

And yet the Major government does offer one lesson for Mr Carlaw.

Once governments start to go off, public opinion can change rapidly.

So Mr Carlaw will pursue a twin-track approach, sugar-coating his own party and throwing every bit of mud he can find at the Nationalists.

He will try to make it sound like a moral failing to support the SNP, practically wicked to side with them.

His goal will then be ensuring his folk go to the polls, while hoping the SNP’s folk get queasy and stay home.

For all the fine talk of fairness and fresh ideas, the coming election will be a brutal fight over differential turnout with the Union on the line.