Ruth Davidson’s summer of set-backs continues apace.
The Scottish Conservative leader saw her endorsement turn into a monkey’s paw, as Sajid Javid, then Michael Gove and finally Jeremy Hunt succumbed to its ministrations. The Tory leadership election ended with a thumping victory for her nemesis Boris Johnson, whom Davidson believes could undo all her efforts to detoxify the party’s brand.
Among Johnson’s first acts as Prime Minister was to sack Davidson’s ally David Mundell as Scottish Secretary, against her advice, and to confirm his stance on no-deal Brexit, a position she rejects.
All this tension was bound to snap eventually and now it has. A new survey by grassroots Conservatives ranks Davidson as the least popular of all senior Tories. The league table, compiled by Tory activist website ConservativeHome, asked party members across the UK for their assessment of each member of the Cabinet plus the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish Tory parties. Davidson scored 14.8 points, placing her rock-bottom.
This represents a spectacular tumble from grace. The same survey, carried out in the wake of the 2017 General Election, saw Davidson come out on top with an 84.5 per cent positive rating. Back then, she had just won 12 extra seats for the Tories in Scotland, one year after replacing Labour as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. Speculation abounded that she could decamp to Westminster and assume the leadership of the UK party.
Her charms have worn off for a membership that is ferociously pro-Brexit and, insofar as he is their latest hope of achieving it, pro-Boris. Her Scottish Mail on Sunday column ruling out support for a no-deal Brexit riled the rank and file something fitful. In local associations across the country, the air was bluer than the perm rinses. One of Davidson’s 2017 election candidates openly questioned whether it was time she was replaced.
There is a fevered madness to all this and some Tory members should keep in the shade for the rest of the summer. While sojourning there, they might ask themselves: why hasn’t the SNP made political capital out of these internal tensions? For the simple reason that Davidson is at odds with her party by virtue of agreeing with the Scottish public, who voted Remain, oppose a no-deal Brexit and are sceptical to say the least about Boris Johnson. The SNP umbrage catalyser can convert almost anything into a grievance but ‘Ruth Davidson: she’s on your side’ is a stretch even for them.
An outsider trying to fathom why a party’s most successful leader ever has come in for such sniping from her own ranks must understand the nature of the beast. The Tory Party could shoot itself in the foot with an unloaded gun. While those who have turned hostile within the Scottish membership are a minority, they embody that noble Tory tradition of political self-sabotage.
Davidson can ‘live, though in fall’n state, content’ for, while her rebellion might have damned her in the eyes of Brexit fundamentalists, she retains the confidence of mainstream Tories in Scotland. While their restive southern counterparts may be in the market for flash and fire these days, Scottish Tories are more appreciative of sturdy, proven leadership. Rhetoric is all well and good but results are what matter.
When it comes to results, Davidson has delivered and then some. When she secured the leadership in 2011, the Scottish Tories were in fourth place on Westminster seats, a distant third in Holyrood, and a majority Nationalist government was poised for a referendum campaign to break up the United Kingdom. Davidson turned one MP into 13, 15 MSPs into 31 and was the Tory lynchpin of the Unionist victory over separatism.
More than mere numbers, she transformed the mood inside her party, giving it a positive, energetic tone, and the mood towards her party, diluting somewhat the stigma of voting Conservative. She has given Unionism a star and brought Westminster-level talent to a decidedly sub-Westminster parliament.
Anyone who tells themselves that these changes were inevitable and Davidson’s presence coincidental — some really do say this — needs to consult the recent history of the Scottish Tory Party. There they will find assurances that Annabel Goldie was destined to turn the party’s fortunes around, and before her David McLetchie.
These myths sustain you in opposition but if you are ever to get into power, you have to wise up. Ruth Davidson’s personal vote far exceeds that of her party; they’re not being tempted over by the allure of Scottish Tory farming policy. A certain slice of the membership might long for a kilted Boris, someone who can bring the Prime Minister’s vaudeville style to Holyrood, but that is not what the wider public wants. Scots are serious people — self-serious, some might say — and when looking for a leader they prefer a grown-up over a class clown.
Not enough in Davidson’s ranks are so minded, and it shows. Nicola Sturgeon has a party behind her still hungry for power; Davidson does not. Scottish Conservative members don’t want the SNP in office but they’ve yet to show signs of seriously wanting their own party to be there instead. This mini backlash against their leader is another symptom of this complacency. A cynic might wonder whether some Scottish Tories prefer having the SNP in power because they get more of a kick out of hammering the Nats than they might from the dull business of policy-making and governing.
Tory HQ will be hoping these ripples of discontent are nothing more than a summer fancy and don’t portend a wave of Brexiteer resentment towards Davidson. As we hurtle towards October 31, she is going to come under more pressure from opponents and the Press to speak about no-deal Brexit and its financial and political impacts. She will have to reflect how most Scots view the prospect even if some of her foot soldiers would rather she dutifully echoed the line from Downing Street.
Leadership is not easy. It is not about telling those behind you what they want to hear. Leadership is where insight meets courage and character is tested by circumstance. Ruth Davidson has demonstrated more than once that she has what it takes to lead. The question is whether her critics have the humility and discipline to follow.
Congratulations to Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, the new co-leaders of the SNP Recycling Club, sometimes known as the Scottish Green Party or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Byres Road.
Harvie used to be ‘co-convener’ but they decided to change the name of the role for reasons no one cares about. Slater, on the other hand, is a fresh face and replaces Maggie Chapman, who led the party’s efforts in the European elections and pulled off a 0.1 per cent increase in the vote. If only carbon emissions were rising at the same rate as support for the Scottish Greens, the planet would have nothing to worry about.
There was some glum news yesterday, when it was reported that party membership figures had fallen by almost 30 per cent. That’s surprising when you consider what a bargain it is: £3 a month plus free membership of the SNP.
Greenwashing nationalism might have seemed a shrewd move in 2014 but it has robbed the party of its distinct identity and clarion voice. Patrick Harvie has turned a rallying cry into an insipid echo.
SNP health minister Jeane Freeman has come under fire from a top trade unionist. Unison’s Tam Waterson, who lambasted Freeman’s management of the scandal surrounding the still unopened Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Children, said: ‘She is the worst Cabinet Secretary I have ever experienced.‘ There speaks a man who’s never dealt with Fiona Hyslop.