Tories under election pressure over 'rape clause'

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson during the debate against the UK Government's so-called 'rape clause' for tax credits Credit: PA

It's often said that modern politics is more managerial than ideological, more about process than passion.

That was not the case yesterday when MSPs debated the so-called 'rape clause'. There was passion aplenty. Frayed tempers.

Now if we want our politicians to be political, not to act like administrators or an extension of the civil service, that is a good thing.

It is worth asking, however, why this debate has become so heated and what lies behind the often angry exchanges?

First, briefly, the 'rape clause' itself. It's come about because the UK government wants to limit tax credits to the first two children in any family.

There are exemptions for adoptions, kinship care and where a child has been born as a result of what is called "non-consensual conception".

In order to get these benefits there is a bureaucratic process involving filling in a form, though the details of the woman's experience are provided by a third party - a doctor or a social worker for example.

There are a number of issues which arise as a result of this policy. One is whether it is right to limit benefits to just two children?

The Tories say yes it is, to curb public spending and it is not as a policy of social engineering.

Their opponents say no it is not, as it effectively puts the government in the position of limiting the number of children poor people have.

But more recently this policy has come to the fore in the Scottish general election campaign with the SNP stepping up their attack on the Scottish Tories over the issue.

Led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon the Nationalists have said the policy is "disgraceful", "repugnant" and "morally unacceptable" among other harsh criticisms.

In yesterday's debate the SNP won the support of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in their condemnation of the policy.

That left the Scottish Tories, and their leader Ruth Davidson, in a very difficult position, defending a policy opponents say is indefensible, a policy introduced by her party at Westminster not by Holyrood.

So what is going on?

The Conservatives believe that the moral outrage expressed by the SNP has little to do with principle and everything to do with the forthcoming election.

Recent opinion polls have suggested the Tories could take a number of Westminster seats from the SNP, including in the south of Scotland. That, they claim privately, is what is motivating the Nationalists.

Just when the Conservatives appeared to have been 'detoxified', the SNP want to 're-toxify' them - to use a clumsy word, if it is indeed even a word.

Nationalists, from the First Minister down, deny this. They point out that they have been campaigning on this for a year or more, led by SNP MP Alison Thewliss.

This is, the SNP say, a moral issue, which highlights the difference between their vision of a compassionate, caring society and that of the Tories.

It is, therefore, only right for them to have raised it in the past, and to raise it now in the run-up to the election. The Tory party is still the 'nasty party', the SNP say, using a phrase once used by Theresa May.

Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale Credit: PA

In such a heated debate there is no room for compromise, but is it possible to discern a fact or two?

First, it is a fact that SNP MPs have been raising this issue since well before the general election was called.

Second, it is their long-stated position that the whole policy of limiting tax credits is wrong in principle.

But it is also a fact that the Scottish government could use the powers it has under the new Scotland Act to mitigate this policy, or create a new Scottish benefit which counter-balanced the UK government's policy.

For the avoidance of doubt this is a quote from the UK government's explanatory notes about the Scotland Act 2016:

"The Scottish Parliament will have the power to create additional benefits, replace existing benefits with new benefits or other payments and to determine the structure and value of such provision."

And it is also a fact that the Scottish government has already acted to mitigate the effects of a UK government policy, the so-called 'bedroom tax'.

But facts only take you so far. Ms Sturgeon and her party argue that, although they may have the power, this is a problem Westminster created and Westminster must solve.

Alison Thewliss MP, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale joined protest outside the Scottish Parliament against the UK Government's 'rape clause' Credit: PA

They say that if they conceded on mitigating this policy, then Westminster could abolish all benefits and expect the Scottish government to take them up.

They would, however, be happy to take on responsibility for all benefits were Westminster to devolve them to Holyrood.

In response to that the Tories say the principle of mitigating a UK benefit policy has already been established.

If the SNP is sincere in its protests, if this is such a heinous policy, it should put its Scottish government money where its mouth is, the Tories argue, though they may not put it quite in those terms.

It would be possible to go into even more detail on this, but I won't.

The underlying question ahead of the general election is whether the concerted attack will dent the apparent Tory revival the polls suggest is happening north of the Border?

Obviously the SNP believe that it will. They may have a principled objection to this policy, but they are also deploying it politically too.

The Scottish Conservatives claim this row will not harm them. It is not an issue that is raised on those oft-talked-abut doorsteps they say.

What is of more concern to voters, and winning them support, the Tories say, is their campaign against a second independence referendum.

However, the Tories know the 'rape clause' will be raised in just about every election forum from now until June 8 - everywhere from town hall hustings to national television debates.

The Conservatives hope is that they can tough this out, and that perhaps there are larger numbers of people than the other parties think who actually support the benefits cap.

But while they may be confident in public I detect that in private the Tories do worry that this attack will revive the image of them as the 'nasty party' and at least curtail their hoped-for revival in Scotland.