Conference season is The X Factor for aspiring party leaders.
Wannabes treat their annual speech to the grassroots as a live audition for the big gig.
Whether their current leader’s coat is on a shoogly peg or, like David Cameron, he still has a few more years left in him, the backing dancers all dream of being the star.
One after the other, the contestants bound onto the stage and do their turn, complete with a few sob stories about their childhood and a self-deprecating anecdote thrown in.
A well-received performance at conference can give them the momentum to get through to the next round. The 2015 Conservative Party gathering in Manchester has been no different, with Cabinet ministers and other senior Tories singing their hearts out for the activists – and the cameras.
There was Boris Johnson’s epic aria and Theresa May’s baleful dirge and George Osborne pitching in bland baritone somewhere in the middle.
One solo stood out from the rest and while it wasn’t an audition to succeed David Cameron, it was the sort of number we might expect from a would-be leader.
Ruth Davidson, heid haggis at the Scottish Conservative Party, was relaxed, at times funny, and a statue of resolution on the impulses and ideals that ground her. She set before an approving audience “proper, old-fashioned, blue-collar Toryism”, neither pining for the ersatz simplicities of an imagined past nor tossing centre-right convictions overboard to sound more cuddly and appealing.
There was all the obligatory Scottish stuff: “Party of the Union” this, “real opposition to the Nats” that. (Actually, her dig that Scottish Labour “makes circular firing squads look competent” was a cracking line.) But once the tartanry was done with, there was a speech of passion and substance about the future of Britain and the future of conservatism – and how to entwine the two. She highlighted her visit to a charity that helps working-class young people gain the skills and confidence to be successful in the workplace. The teenagers she met were from “tough backgrounds” but had “bright futures” ahead of them:
They burned with a sense of righteousness of the world they want to see, the world they want to build, not the world as they know it right now. I believe each and every one of them will change their own world for the better. But they made one thing clear too: They see themselves utterly set apart, socially and economically segregated, from every single politician and decision-maker that talks on TV. It didn’t matter if they grew up rich or poor, went to a rough school or a posh one, the very fact of putting on a suit and standing at a podium like this, made them different, foreign and other. That’s a bridge politicians and decisions-makers have to cross. A bridge our party has to cross.
So it was not enough for the Conservatives to be seen as a safe pair of hands who could be trusted on the economy where the socialist spendthrifts of Labour could not. The Tories had to show what Bush 41 once called “the vision thing”.
I want us to be the party of the thinkers, the dreamers, the reformers and the visionaries too. The zeal of the missionary, the courage of the pioneer, the ambition to lift our eyes to the horizon and say there’s a new Jerusalem we want to build and we will work towards it every day. And more than that, we’ll take people with us.
There was little policy substance in her remarks. This was not a list of announcements but an argument about what conservatism is, who it is for, and how it should speak to the country. It challenged delegates to come down on the side of a modern, reforming centre-rightism that cherishes traditional values but defines them inclusively. It was a cri de coeur for Tory dynamism:
A belief in marriage – gay or straight – and of families in every shape and size as the primary building block of our society. A commitment to giving those at the bottom a hand up and of clearing away barriers to advancement at every level. A recognition that children don’t all learn the same and shouldn’t all be taught the same. That school choice and parental freedom lead to better life chances. A belief in the invention and creativity of people and where governments get in the way of that, they should remove themselves from the field.
Davidson was talking the language of Britain in 2020 and beyond, a dialect more Tories will have to pick up if they are to renew and replenish themselves in government. This was a speech that, had it been delivered by one of the touted leaders-in-waiting, would have seen their prospects boosted immeasurably.
Which brings us to the problem: Davidson is already a leader – of the Scottish Conservatives. That’s a good thing for Tories up here but not ideal for the wider party.
She’ll shout at me for saying it but her barnstorming performance only underscores how wasted she is in Scotland. The Tories might pick up a few list seats next May but when they scan the horizon, the new day will still be a long way off. There are a variety of reasons: Brand toxicity, social and demographic shifts, the rise of nationalism and, perversely, the triumph of conservative orthodoxy on economics, tax and crime. We are living through a great Conservative age in the UK, with the Tories the natural party of government in England and enjoying a revival in Wales. That is not the case north of the border. Scotland already has a party of the left, a party of the right, and a party of the centre – only they’re all the SNP.
That Davidson is willing to expend her talents on what is so obviously a lost cause is commendable but it deprives the Conservative Party of another star at Westminster. The bad news for her southern colleagues is that Davidson has a Holyrood election to fight in 2016, local elections the year after, and will be much-deployed in the EU referendum as a pragmatic Yesser. The TA veteran isn’t the sort to leave a job half-done. She is also fiercely patriotic about Scotland – weird, I know – and might not want to tear up her roots and start a new life in the Tory shires.
But the Tories should be doing everything to lure her south, with a safe seat and if needs be a junior ministerial job to start out. Her determination and fortitude are recommendation enough but she would also bring a fresh face to a government that is still too male and too posh. After a few years, a place around the Cabinet table would be in sight and in time, with the right circumstances, some more policy grounding, and a dose of luck, she could find herself a serious candidate for the Tory top job.
Then again, maybe not. A bolshy, driven woman from the wrong background becoming Tory leader? It’ll never happen.