How Ruth can save the Union (in spite of her Boris problem)

Barring an electoral upset unforeseen by the opinion polls — we all know that never happens — Boris Johnson will be elected leader of the Conservative Party tomorrow.

The following day he will be invited to kiss hands and thereafter become Prime Minister, an extraordinary turnaround for a man regarded by many on his own side as an overindulged after-dinner turn.

The country’s oldest political party is crumbling with such haste that, in the search for a new king, the court jester is the last man standing. In truth, Johnson is more a knave than a fool but while his knavery cajoled the support of enough MPs, his foolery is what will see him romp home among members.

We will soon learn whether these charms have much purchase outwith the Conservative Party but one part of the nation is certainly immune to them. Scotland was never going to be Boris country — he’s a southern posh-boy, after all — but his rhetoric on Brexit is even more inflammatory among an electorate that voted decisively to remain in the European Union.

Recent polls suggest that, while a majority of Scots are still in favour of the Union, the balance would tip in favour of separation if Johnson reached Number 10 or if the UK Brexited without a deal.

Where does this leave Ruth Davidson? The 40-year-old has given her prime to her party, nursing it back from near-death and into the mainstream of political life. By the time she became leader in 2011, the Scottish Tories had been reduced to a mildly political neighbourhood watch group, doing the odd round of leafleting in between tea dances and community litter pick-ups.

Over eight politically (and sometimes personally) painful years, Davidson ran the hard yards and was eventually rewarded when the party became the official opposition at Holyrood and leapt from one to 13 seats at Westminster.

Her most important work, however, has been in helping to reinvigorate Scottish Unionism as a confident political tradition. Nationalism no longer preaches in an echo chamber; now the other viewpoint, the majority viewpoint, answers back.

After all her efforts, it will have been galling to read a poll last month that showed 63 per cent of Conservative Party members would still be in favour of Brexit even if it meant Scotland breaking away. How peculiar all this must feel to the SNP, who have spent 85 years trying to convince Scotland of the case for independence only to recruit the Conservative and Unionist Party instead.

Gloomy though this might sound, there is already a solution for Davidson’s woes, though it would involve an audacious gamble. The Edinburgh Central MSP secured the Scottish Tory leadership by opposing Murdo Fraser’s proposal for a new, distinctively Scottish centre-right party divorced from the UK Conservatives but sharing broadly similar values.

The membership and the parliamentary party were not ready for such a radical move in 2011 but 2019 is a very different world. The cause is no longer making the Tories easier to market north of the Border but ensuring there is still a viable bulwark against the SNP and independence.

A Scottish Tory party with the twin millstones of Boris Johnson and no-deal Brexit around its neck is unlikely to be equal to this task. A fresh party, however, would be in a much stronger position to make a positive case for the Union while appealing to voters fed up with the SNP and repelled by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

As I understand it, this is how key players in the Scottish Tory Party are now thinking.

A senior insider tells me: ‘There is a growing consensus among Ruth’s allies that this is an idea whose time has come. We’re almost there anyway. We’re already a separate party in all but name.

‘I keep hearing people describe relations between Ruth and Boris as transactional or businesslike. That’s true but it underlines the fact that these are now two separate entities rather than the one party. So why not hang a new brass plaque and make it official?’

It would be no easy feat to pull off and of course Davidson would be pilloried by her opponents for changing her mind but adapting to evolving circumstances is how you survive and prosper in politics.

When she was elected leader, Davidson didn’t just resurrect her party; to all intents and purposes, she became her party. In a presidential-style election, she could well beat Nicola Sturgeon. It’s her party that holds her back, and now it too faces being weighted down by its overbearing older sibling.

My insider adds: ‘When she was fighting to turn the Scottish Tories around, Ruth had this clever analogy about how Skoda revived its brand. She pointed out that they didn’t change the name but changed the quality of the car. Her observation was right at the time and she got the party up and running again.

‘The party down south really has become a drag anchor on our ability to succeed and we have to change that fact. Our aim is to reach a broad cross-section of Scottish society and the best way to do that is with a party that is distinctively Scottish and represents those things.’

Writing in these pages last week, Gordon Brown warned that Johnson could be the last ever Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It is unfortunate that a Tory brand Davidson toiled to detoxify is on the brink of choosing as its new face a man regarded as electoral strychnine in Scotland.

However, the break-up of the Union is still wholly preventable. In the first instance, Johnson could surprise everyone by taking his lead from Davidson and fashioning a Brexit more palatable to Scotland.

In recent weeks, however, there has been scant evidence that he and those around him grasp the scale of the challenge, let alone possess the wherewithal to address it. The constitutional question lives in the margins and, in the event of a second referendum, would be decided by those who are still undecided.

The danger is that a Johnson premiership makes up their minds for them, pushing them towards independence and away from Ruth Davidson, now the de facto head of Scotland’s pro-Union movement. Independence could be handed a consistent poll lead and Nicola Sturgeon a comfortable majority after the next Holyrood elections to do something about it.

A new centrist, pro-UK party with Ruth Davidson as its leader, untainted and unburdened by the extremism of Boris Johnson’s Tories, could transform Scottish politics and deny the incoming Prime Minister a parliamentary majority for the reckless and ruinous version of Brexit he appears set on.

It could also challenge the SNP for ownership of the Scottish centre-ground, which Nicola Sturgeon’s party conquered without a fight but would struggle to hold under real hostilities. Davidson would be in with a chance of becoming First Minister and might save the Union in the process.

Not everyone would be on board with this. There are some Scottish Tories backing Johnson — MPs Ross Thomson and Colin Clark, for example — but most regard his likely victory with existential dread, not least because the SNP is so gleeful at the prospect.

A senior Tory at Westminster entertains the possibility that Johnson might exceed these low expectations, telling me: ‘We are all guilty of suggesting this moment is like the fall of Saigon. It isn’t.

‘That is the SNP’s problem, as well as a problem for others. If you forecast Armageddon and it is really shit but not quite so shit, then you have ruined your End of Days narrative. This is going to be abso-fucking-lutely awful, but not so awful as predicted.’

Perhaps this analysis will pan out but careful study of Johnson’s career does not give cause for optimism. The biggest threat to the electoral fortunes of the Scottish Tories, and maybe even the Union itself, is no longer the SNP but the man who will wake up in 10 Downing Street on Thursday morning.

Ruth Davidson faces an historic choice which will require historic courage.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.ukContact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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