Theresa May is expected to announce her resignation as Prime Minister sometime in June.
Given her success rate on exit plans, she could still be in Downing Street three years from now, preparing to enter the latest round of negotiations with the removal men.
However, assuming she manages an orderly Therexit, we can look forward to an election for the Conservative leadership over the summer, wrapping up in time for the party’s autumn conference.
There are four declared candidates and about a dozen more have hinted that they might stand. Evidently some still labour under the misapprehension that the Tory leadership is a prize rather than a divine punishment. The best that can be said for those who want the job the most is that they thoroughly deserve to get it.
The contest will cleave along Brexit fault lines, as no-dealers like Dominic Raab pitch to the true-blue membership and withdrawal agreement supporters (perhaps Jeremy Hunt or Matt Hancock) make their case to Tory MPs, who comprise the electorate for the first round of voting.
One-Nationer Rory Stewart will try to start a conversation about the future of conservatism but soon find he is speaking largely to himself. Ex-Army Brexiteer James Cleverly isn’t rated by the commentariat but the grassroots love him. If he won, he would become Britain’s first black Prime Minister.
All this focus on Brexit and personalities will leave little time for Scotland, save for the odd jaunt up to Edinburgh in the vain hope of getting an endorsement from Ruth Davidson.
Serious candidates should make time, not least because, absent the 12 extra MPs Davidson sent to Westminster last time, Jeremy Corbyn would be closing in on two years in Downing Street and the Budget would be John McDonnell reading out random passages from Das Kapital.
The importance of Scotland to the Tories’ fortunes is twofold. They have to grow the current crop of Scottish Conservative MPs to make it harder for the SNP to prop up a Corbyn government. They must also retain Scotland in the Union or risk following the tumult of Brexit with the catastrophe of a British break-up.
Scotland cannot be a day ticked off the message grid; it must be seen as integral to choosing a leader, someone who can drive forward, or at least not undermine, the Tory revival up here.
There are eight key factors to consider and the ideal candidate will be need to address at least some of them.
1) Get on with it. The Brexit process has already drawn on far too long and even many of us who voted Remain just want Parliament to follow through on the outcome of the referendum. The SNP has failed to capitalise on Brexit, despite 62 per cent of Scots voting Remain, but dragging it out further allows the Nationalists to take votes from Remainers (‘Scotland’s voice is being ignored’) and Leavers (‘they can’t even deliver what you voted for’). No more faffing around: secure a sensible deal, then let’s be on our way.
2) Don’t flinch on the Union. For all her faults, Theresa May deserves credit for her steely, yet heartfelt defence of the Union. Resist the temptation to be drawn into debates about the timing of a second independence referendum. This is SNP territory and it’s where they win. Simply say politely and respectfully that Scotland voted No in a ‘once in a generation’ referendum and that you won’t let Nicola Sturgeon bully Scots into another vote they don’t want.
3) Don’t be afraid of the SNP. David Cameron was always on the back foot with the Nationalists because he feared Alex Salmond’s ability to stir up a majority for separation. Nicola Sturgeon’s party is a wounded beast — still a threat but a manageable one. Scotland is not the SNP’s country; it belongs as much to Esther McVey as it does to Fiona Hyslop. Tory leadership candidates, and the eventual victor, should feel no qualms about coming here and setting out their stall against Sturgeon.
4) Moderation. Most Scots — like most voters in the rest of the nation — are not ideologues. They want a prime minister who is measured and sober in decision-making. They want to hear ideas but they’re not particularly interested in ‘isms’. That doesn’t mean only milksops need apply; there is scope for May’s successor to hail from her right. What will not be received well by Middle Scotland is anyone who tries to pass themselves off as a British Donald Trump. We’ve had enough bombast and division in Scotland, thank you very much.
5) Don’t think big, think boring. This follows on from the previous point, but the last decade has seen an unwelcome elevation of politics across the Western world. Politics is the art of filling in potholes without putting up taxes; it is not meant to be a substitute for spiritual fulfilment. Messianic politics is finally losing its appeal as voters see it is no more reliable than the low skullduggery that went before. This is especially the case in Scotland. Turning politics into a religion in pursuit of national redemption left us with schoolchildren who can’t read or write and a health service that fails to meet even basic targets. We are in the market for a hard-working dullard who prefers fixing problems to saving souls.
6) Don’t patronise. One of the biggest misconceptions is that voters north of the Border rejected Thatcherism when, in truth, it was the messenger, not the message, that irked them. As Malcolm Rifkind once remarked, Scotland’s problem with Maggie was that ‘she was a woman, an English woman, and a bossy English woman’. May’s successor should, like her, show respect for Scotland but they should not pander or patronise. We don’t need to know about great-aunt Constance and her fondness for shortbread. Scotland is not hugely different from England and Tories from down south shouldn’t act like they’ve arrived in a foreign land. This is about shading and emphasis — knowing the importance of tone and the menace of language. Hand the SNP neither gaffes nor grievances.
7) Let Ruth take the lead. Ruth Davidson has single-handedly revived the Scottish Tory Party and as well as credit she deserves respect. She has earned the right not only to be listened to on matters affecting Scotland but to be part of the decision-making inner circle. Whomever is the next leader of the Tories, and the country, must recognise that Davidson knows her patch better than anyone else and be canny enough to defer to her when she warns of disaster ahead.
8) Think long and hard about Boris. The blond bombshell delights Tory members with his amateur dramatics and un-PC humour but Davidson regards him as unsuited for the premiership. She understands that he would be politically toxic in Scotland, not least given the many disobliging things he’s written and published about Scots over many years in journalism. He has the potential to set teeth on edge even more than Mrs Thatcher because, while she was unmistakably British, he presents as the quintessential Old Etonian romantic English Tory.
There has been a lot of bold talk of the Scottish Tories breaking away to form a separate centre-right party should Johnson ever be elected leader. There is even a Holyrood-based stop-Boris Operation with a four-letter name we don’t use in the Daily Mail.
It will never happen. Ruth Davidson is not about to tear up the fabric of the Tory Party — she is a conservative, after all — and should Johnson emerge as the members’ choice, she will grudgingly accept it and try to keep him as far south of the Tweed as possible.
Even so, English Tories should pause to consider why the leader of their Scottish party feels so strongly. The Scottish Conservatives are no longer the poor relation in this family. As the only part of the Tory Party in the ascendancy for some time now, they might just have something to teach their colleagues.