Davidson puts Sturgeon on notice in first outing as opposition leader

Are you one of those people who still can’t quite get your head around the Holyrood election result?

There’s no shame in it; many others are in the same position.

The Conservatives are now the second party of Scotland. Labour lags behind in third place.

How did this happen? The Tories were “toxic” north of the border, a brand so despised by the natives that in their last leadership election one of the two main candidates proposed abolishing the party altogether and starting afresh. (And he won 45% of the vote.)

Two things changed all this. One was the referendum, which reoriented Scottish politics from a debate over social and economic policy to a struggle over identity and the constitution. Many Scots had been unswervingly hostile to the party of Thatcher and the Poll Tax. But the party that would stand up to the SNP and its independence push? Yes, please.

Something else happened: Ruth Davidson became Scottish Tory leader. At first it seemed something of a gamble to put a 32-year-old lesbian BBC journalist in charge of the party of blue rinses and tea dances. Her predecessor Annabel Goldie enjoyed substantial personal popularity but couldn’t translate it into votes for the Tories. If Auntie Bella couldn’t rekindle the Tory torch up in Scotland, how would this neophyte fare?

Quite well, actually.

Davidson’s mettle — that quality that induced so many Labour voters to do the unthinkable on May 5 — was on display in her response to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement of government priorities for the next five years.

The First Minister’s remarks on Wednesday were a modest affair, not rising to the healthy mandate handed her by the country. Education was her top priority, she declared, and so to address falling standards, slipping literacy and numeracy rates, and cavernous attainment gaps between the richest and poorest, she announced… a summit.

Not just any summit, though. An international one.

Evidence-based policy-making is important but there’s a bounty of evidence out there already. Sturgeon’s chalkboard UN sounds an awful lot like a stalling measure until her new education secretary John Swinney can get a handle on the textbook of failings left behind by Angela Constance.

Those of us who reposed great faith in Sturgeon — I am the minutes secretary of Hacks for Nicola — are faced with a discomforting prospect: Maybe this is the best she has. Let’s hope not but Wednesday’s announcement was far from promising.

That is where Ruth Davidson comes back in. She delivered a speech that put the First Minister on notice. Fun time’s over, was her message. Get back to work.

Davidson told Holyrood:

I know that the constitution will always be a constant driving force behind the SNP’s agenda. I had hoped that we might be able to get through an entire Sturgeon speech without it being mentioned, but sadly the First Minister proved me wrong once again.

I say this gently to the First Minister and to her whole team: with our schools in need of reform, a healthcare system to protect, an information technology shambles to sort out, and a new tax and welfare system to run, I respectfully suggest that there is more than enough to be getting on with.

The session of parliament in which we decided whether or not to leave the UK is over; in this session, let us get on with leading within the UK instead.

It’s a bit rich for someone who banged on about the constitution all through the election campaign to insist everyone gets back to bread and butter issues. But that’s politics for you.

And for Labour switchers still unsure if they made the right choice at the start of the month, Davidson went out of her way to show her priorities are not those of a stereotypical Tory. Her speech by the numbers: 965 words on the economy, business and tax; 1244 words on education, health and welfare.

She also set out her party’s approach to opposition. They would challenge, not carp; propose, not hector.

The Conservative group was elected on a promise to provide a strong opposition to the Scottish Government. That does not mean shouting louder or emoting harder, or a more frenzied gnashing of teeth; it means that we intend to provide a forensic challenge to the government’s policies. If the government wants support, we will want to see the evidence and the facts that back up its plans.

We will set out a clear vision for how we hope the government will proceed. We want a government that uses the tools of the state to create a stronger society, that seeks not to crowd out individual freedom but to liberate it, and that offers support for communities and families to lead better lives-prioritising those who need it most-while recognising that the government cannot do it all and that government at its best is not an imposition but a partnership with society.

Nicola Sturgeon would do well to listen. A government can survive losing a referendum but not losing its reputation for competence. This parliament will focus unlike any before it on public services, how they are delivered, how they are funded, and where decisions should be taken. Devolution has worked in favour of the Nationalists for the past decade, giving them enough of a platform to complain that Scotland doesn’t have enough of a platform.

They could be about to feel the sharp end of our asymmetric constitutional system, wielding enough power to take the blame but not enough to change the fundamentals. If this parliament is a dry-run for how they’d govern an independent country, they might come to thank Davidson for her frequent pokes in the ribs.

Despite the glum and crabby mood amongst their more intense supporters, the Nationalists’ win, though short of a majority, was resounding. No party poses any real electoral threat to them and smart strategising and business management will keep government defeats to a minimum. Nicola Sturgeon is the woman in charge and what she says will go, more or less.

But if the First Minister is tempted to grow complacent, I’d direct her to the sad, lonely sight of Ian Murray at Westminster. That’s where complacency leads.

And it will not have escaped her attention that the Tories’ election night assault wasn’t just on Labour territory. Davidson took Edinburgh Central from the SNP while Alexander Burnett turned Aberdeenshire West from yellow to blue. In Moray, the Tories cut 8000 from Richard Lochhead’s majority while in Perthshire North, Murdo Fraser slashed John Swinney’s advantage from 10,000 to 3000. Roseanna Cunningham went into the election with a majority just over 7000; now it’s just over 1000. In Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Stewart Stevenson’s majority was halved. In all, the Tories came second in more than a quarter of SNP seats.

The Nats may not like Davidson but they’d be fools to underestimate her. So would Scottish Labour if it tells itself May’s result was a fluke and they’ll be back in second place come 2021. If the last five years have been about the SNP replacing Labour as Scotland’s establishment party, the next five will be about the Tories embedding themselves as the second force in politics north of the border.

“Anti-establishment Tories” is a concept to get your head around but such is the dynamic of Scottish politics today: Caution versus dynamism, statism versus choice, centralisation versus dispersal of power, and, yes, nationalism versus unionism/non-nationalism.

There is a conservative party in Scottish politics but it is not the one headed by Ruth Davidson.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.

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