Politician of the Year is a concept to be viewed with the utmost suspicion. It’s like Top Ten Estate Agents or World’s Greatest Traffic Warden. Surely giving them an award only encourages them.
Ruth Davidson has picked up the gong for the second year in a row, a reflection of the remarkable gains made by the Scottish Conservatives in June’s General Election.
Miss Davidson may have been handed another prize in the shape of Scottish Labour’s new leader Richard Leonard. The staunch socialist was unveiled as Kezia Dugdale’s successor over the weekend and already the Tories can spy an opportunity. If the Yorkshireman drags his party out into the wilds of Corbynite Leftism — he campaigned on raising taxes to the tune of £4bn — he risks alienating middle-income public sector workers who hitherto saw Labour as the best bet for balancing economic growth and social justice. The next Holyrood election could become a straight fight between the SNP and the Tories.
That Miss Davidson senses this was evident in a speech she gave on Saturday in Perth. She said: ‘My party must step up to do the job that people in Scotland desperately want to see: holding the SNP to account. To oppose the Nationalists’ obsession with independence – and to set out a mainstream alternative: improving schools, investing in services and supporting business.’
Her first test will be the SNP’s heavily-hinted plans to put up taxes, something Miss Davidson strongly opposes. The pitfall that she must avoid is being painted as a guardian of privilege. Yes, most high earners are hard workers and their affluence reflects many years of risk, sacrifice, and pluck. But to those on the other end of the income scale, the very people the Tories have to win over, their own long hours and hard graft hasn’t paid off anywhere near as handsomely.
The Conservative chief has to make the case that, whether they hit basic ratepayers or those in a higher bracket, tax rises impact the whole economy. You might think your GP could afford to pay extra — and maybe she could — but the next time a job comes up down south, the prospect of keeping more of her own money might just tip the scale in favour of a move.
Rallying a taxpayers’ revolt against the SNP would be a major step in any Ruth Davidson journey to the office of First Minister.
Team Tory has a ready-made template for taking an opposition party into government, courtesy of Alex Salmond. When he regained the reins of the SNP in 2004, Mr Salmond set about wooing the voters he needed to jimmy open the door of Bute House. Labour supporters knew their party had run out of steam yet eyed the Nationalists dubiously. The spectre of ‘Tartan Tories’ had faded but they still had to be convinced that the SNP had their interests at heart.
So the Salmond pitch promised to save under-threat hospital services, reduce class sizes, and provide more free childcare. Then he turned to Middle Scotland, their eyebrows as sharply arched at the prospect of a separatist rabble in charge at Holyrood. To these voters, Mr Salmond sang a sweet song of moderation: Scrapping or cutting business rates for small firms and putting more police on the streets.
The SNP nosed the 2007 election not because they won the voters’ hearts but because they secured their trust. Scots do not yet trust the Conservatives with their schools or their hospitals and the Conservatives have no hope of winning until they do. The object is not to covert the electorate but to convince them that, whatever their misgivings about the Tories, First Minister Ruth Davidson would have the ideas and the determination to turn around a struggling NHS and put excellence back at the heart of Scottish education. All the bullish bombast about safeguarding the Union will amount to naught if they cannot do that.
Tactics and presentation are overdue an overhaul. The party needs better candidates and more rigorous vetting. Some of the characters who slipped through during the local elections were an embarrassment and a few of the MSPs would struggle to recognise themselves in the street. The mixed bag at Holyrood has hindered the Tories’ scope to do what all good oppositions are supposed to go: Rack up ministerial scalps.
That Fergus Ewing survived the farm payments fiasco and Michael Matheson’s remake of Keystone Kops is still on the go speaks volumes about Nicola Sturgeon but it hardly recommends the political mettle of the Tory benches.
Ever since they found themselves a leader who could win votes, the Scottish Conservatives have allowed themselves to become the Ruth Davidson Party and relied on their figurehead’s personal efforts and punter appeal to pull them forward. This has engendered a complacency in some, a blithe flick of the wrist and ‘Ruth will fix it’ in response to every challenge.
While Miss Davidson has carried them this far, the rest of the party will have to put its shoulder into it if it wants to get over the line. There are a number of frontbenchers who sorely need to toughen up and several behind them who ought to be put on notice to raise their game.
It would be foolhardy to attempt a prediction about the 2021 election. Anything can happen in these times of political turbulence and downright weirdness. We could wake up tomorrow to learn Jack McConnell is becoming a newsreader on North Korean TV or Christine Grahame has agreed to star in a pilot for The Only Way is Ettrick.
But this we do know: The SNP is no longer the unbeatable electoral machine it was just a few years ago. If the Tories can exploit the Nationalists’ weaknesses and convince voters that a Conservative government could protect public services without painful tax hikes, Ruth Davidson might just land herself a title even grander than Politician of the Year.
Kezia Dugdale is under fire for skipping the Scottish Parliament to appear on I’m a Celebrity. Some fear the respected institution could be brought into disrepute by association with a low-brow circus of attention-seeking and debasement like the Scottish Parliament. Miss Dugdale will have to endure horrifying trials in the jungle but this is someone who has sat through entire George Foulkes speeches.
Critics say the MSP will miss important parliamentary business. Last week Holyrood discussed ‘cycle tourism’, East Lothian radio stations and the cultural history of Maryhill. You could go on a 12-month trek in the Andes and return to find Patrick Harvie still halfway through the same question about sustainable yurts.
If anything, more MSPs should do reality TV. I’ve spent years trying to figure out Fiona Hyslop’s talent but maybe Simon Cowell will have better luck. And we’d get a blessed break from bossy laws and cringe-making blunders. Don’t vote Kezia out of the jungle. Vote the other 128 in.
As Chancellor Philip Hammond prepares to deliver his Budget on Wednesday, many of us will recall the line about there being only two certainties in life: Death and taxes. Now we can add a third: Whatever commitments Scotland’s 13 Conservative MPs have won from the Treasury, the SNP will claim all the credit.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.