Ruth Davidson is back, but is she ready for what lies ahead?
On this question, the next two years of Scottish politics will hang. Davidson presented herself to the Tory conference in Aberdeen as a candidate to be the next First Minister. Now she must convince the voters and that isn’t going to be easy.
There are four hurdles she must clear before getting within reach of the victory line. These are: vision, policy, leadership and discipline.
Conservatives are good at saying what they’re against but ask what they’re for and you get a meandering mish-mash of instincts and initiatives — liberal economics and conservative attitudes; tax cuts today and more spending on law and order tomorrow. What Ruth Davidson must do is fashion a 2025 vision: a blueprint for Scotland after four years of a Conservative-led government.
She closed her speech in Aberdeen with a pledge to ‘bring Scotland back’. That message will resonate with those who despair of what has become of their country in the last decade. They reject the political sectarianism the SNP has injected into the body politic — the bitter division, complete with its own marches, that has replaced ‘What school did you go to?’ with ‘You Yes yet?’ as the Sorting Hat of tribal allegiance.
Davidson must hold out the promise of an end to all that but she cannot restore Scotland to its pre-2007 factory settings. To be in with a chance of sending Nicola Sturgeon on her merry way, she has to command the votes of those who do not feel strongly about the constitution, including some who may even have voted Yes in 2014.
You can’t take the country forward with a backwards-looking message and Davidson must present herself as Scotland’s chance to move on from constitutionalism, not to abjure it forevermore. We know there would be no independence referendum on her watch; what we need to hear is what there would be.
She will begin to craft that vision in the coming months and it will have to be one for a confident, proud, successful nation at ease with itself but ambitious to do better. Scotland 2025 must be a place where all Scots, regardless of constitutional preference, feel at home.
Policy is going to be a major obstacle for the Scottish Tories. Policy is meat, it has texture and muscle; you can sink your teeth into it and either swallow or spit it back out. The Tories need to assemble a policy recipe that is palatable to the voters and digestible once in government. Reheated Thatcherism will satisfy very few and if the Conservatives want to occupy Bute House, they will have to occupy the centre-ground.
Despite all the myth-making, Middle Scotland is not that different from Middle England. It is worried about crime, suspicious of tax rises and despairing of the state of public services. The Tories have to identify where the necessary voters are on the key issues and join them there.
If this sounds distinctly New Labour, that’s because it is. Tony Blair may have left office markedly less popular than when he entered it but he turned his party into an opposition-flattening juggernaut.
This he did through retail politics, making a pitch to the country outlining what they would get from New Labour for the price of their vote. This was even written down on the famous 1997 pledge card — a sales receipt of sorts — and included cuts in class sizes, fast-tracked punishment for young offenders and reducing NHS waiting lists.
Davidson may not be able to get voters to fall in love with the Scottish Tories but she could convince them of the benefits of a transactional relationship. New Labour’s 1997 manifesto did this when it described the party as ‘the political arm of none other than the British people’.
The retail offer Ruth Davidson should make is to put herself at the service of Scotland and, where core Tory principles are at odds with Scotland, to pursue them only by persuasion or compromise or not at all.
Leadership should be the least of the Tories’ worries. They have a star who can go toe-to-toe with Nicola Sturgeon without flinching. But a good leader must have worthy followers and here we arrive at one of the stark weaknesses of Davidson’s party: her MSPs.
Alex Salmond counted among his top team tough operators like Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill and Bruce Crawford, and led a capable, if untested, parliamentary group. Beyond her immediate circle, Team Ruth has little of that calibre and it shows more day by day. Davidson cleared out one lot of deadwood before 2016 only for the election to sweep in another.
The only thing she can do about that now is dim the lights above her party and focus the spotlight on herself. She will have to, in style and rhetoric at least, adopt Murdo Fraser’s idea of abolishing the Scottish Tories. The beginnings of a rebranding could be glimpsed at conference, where posters bore the legend ‘Scotland Together’ and you had to squint to spot a reference to the party.
Voting Conservative is still a bridge too far for some, so they must be spirited across the river by other means. Rather than expend a lot of words persuading doubters to vote Tory, get round the problem in just five: Ruth Davidson for First Minister.
Finally, discipline will be essential from here on in, both from the party and from Davidson herself. Some MPs operate semi-detached from the Scottish party and have made alliances instead with Tory factions at Westminster. They flatter themselves that they got elected off their own steam when their seat would just as readily have been won by a cardboard cut-out of Davidson bicycled around the constituency by the local area chairman.
These parliamentarians need not be as Stepfordly compliant as Nationalist MPs but they cannot continue to act like independent contractors. A hint of divergence is as good as a schism to political journalists and the voters will not elect a party distracted by internal divisions. They’re after a government, not a university debating society.
Davidson is a student of former Australian prime minister John Howard, who came to power through his own ‘blue collar revolution’, and her party would do well to adopt his first rule of politics: ‘Disunity is death’.
Davidson needs to shape up, too. She was introduced to conference over the weekend with an American-style presidential promo video. All very slick but a succession of stunts scored to her rugby club cackle. Back when the Tories were stuck in third place, she had to keep their spirits up — and keep the press interested — with headline-grabbing hijinks.
Now, the spirits are sky high, the TV cameras ever in tow, and Davidson is the alternative first minister — not your mate Phil who’ll skull a pint for the Instagram likes.
Of course Davidson shouldn’t suppress her personality; it would be nice having a first minister who has one. But Scotland is a conservative country and, although such things should not matter, it would not be comfortable with a ladette for a leader.
We’ve had Ruth: Tank Commander. We’ve done the Soleros and the buffalos and leaping through wheat fields. We’ve even had a picture of Gillian Anderson straight out of the XXX-Files. Now we need the woman who would summon the Scottish Government Resilience Committee amid reports of a terrorist incident in Glasgow. The voice that would update the nation after an epidemic outbreak. The figurehead the country would look to for security and reassurance.
Davidson is a natural leader but she has to show it.
Given all the obstacles ahead, can Ruth Davidson really become First Minister? Nationalist insiders scoff at the possibility; the commentariat is dismissive. I am not so sure. There is a path to Bute House but it involves a mountain of work and an ocean of luck. Everything beyond the challenges outlined above is outside her control, be it the vagaries of Brexit or events at the High Court.
Two years out from polling day, I can’t tell you whether she will pull it off. I can tell you this: she has what it takes. She has that magic alloy of compassion and steely determination, of confidence and humility. She believes in herself and her cause and when you are in the fight of your political life, that is what counts most of all.
Originally published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.