Ruth Davidson strode onto stage but she may as well have waltzed.
The Scottish Tory leader, rubescent in her rosso corsa skirt suit, was down to deliver the closing speech to her party’s conference.
But the Lady in Red was here to dance.
She took the country for a few birls but it was Labour voters she had her eye on. Enough of them switched last May to make her leader of the opposition. Now she wants to keep them and bring more over. The Tories, she assured them, were ‘the only party which has the courage and the guts to stand up to the SNP’.
And just to prove it, she paused between reels to pick a fight with Nicola Sturgeon over at the punch bowl. ‘We will fight you every step of the way,’ Davidson glowered. ‘We said No. We meant it. Are you listening, Nicola? No. Second. Referendum.’ On the decline in Scottish education and the children left behind, she snipped: ‘So much for your social justice, Nicola.’
Labour is going through a family break-up. The SNP got the young hotheads but Davidson wants the cooler, wiser minds. Her courtship has been subtle yet awkward:
‘Are ye dancin’?’
‘Are ye askin’?’
‘Then I’m dancin’ but not necessarily forgiving you for Ravenscraig or the miners’ strike.’
It’s not surprising, then, that other than independence Davidson’s speech majored on domestic policy. The Scottish Tories wanted economic growth but they also cherished a fair society. They were for personal responsibility but knew it was meaningless if people didn’t have opportunities. They ‘aspired to govern for all of Scotland’, not just this group or that.
There was something familiar about this battlecry. It was decent, compassionate, moderate. This is how the Labour Party used to speak.
Amid all the wooing, we got some policy detail but not enough. Whispering sweet nothings in our ear might give us the warm ‘n’ fuzzies but there’s still the joint account and the bin rota to talk about.
The most startling moment of her address was Davidson’s assertion that ‘we are a government in waiting’. Though qualified by talk of time and hard work, it was an audacious claim — one that will either prove prescient or cringe-making. When Labour took to calling Neil Kinnock ‘the Prime Minister in waiting’, Mrs Thatcher quipped: ‘He might have quite a wait.’
The Tories — the next government — in Scotland? It couldn’t happen… could it?
A year ago, it would have sounded bizarre; five years ago, lunatic. Today, it registers as fanciful — but not wholly impossible, especially in these times of extreme political turbulence. Corbyn couldn’t happen. Brexit couldn’t happen. Trump couldn’t happen. We’re all out of couldn’ts.
And Ruth Davidson has her dancing shoes on and doesn’t even look out of breath.
Originally published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.