A modern Tory who took the fight to the SNP

After the Glasgow launch of her party’s 2016 Holyrood election manifesto, Ruth Davidson hopped in a car and zoomed along the M8 back to Edinburgh.

Suddenly, a tyre blew out and she and three male aides found themselves on the hard shoulder. The trio of sharp-suited millennials knew their way around an iPhone but had not the foggiest about matters mechanical.

The problem was as much about spin as it was about wheel nuts: the Scottish press corps was only a few minutes behind them and headlines like ‘Wheels come off Tory campaign’ beckoned.

Davidson, a former signaller in the Army Reserve, leapt into action, grabbing a wheel brace, a jack and a spare and fitting a new tyre at Formula One speed, as her advisers looked on sheepishly. The crisis was averted and the newspapers denied their headlines.

There could hardly be a more vivid image of Ruth Davidson’s unique brand of Conservatism. She is a can-do Tory who believes in rolling up your sleeves, dirtying your hands and getting the job done.

It is a worldview born of her lower middle-class upbringing in Fife, where her parents drummed personal responsibility and self-reliance into her and where her bog-standard comprehensive taught her there were no rewards without effort.

Davidson is also a very modern Tory: a BBC presenter turned Conservative MSP, a church-going lesbian with a sense of humour bluer than her party rosette, and a Scottish Protestant who fell in love with an Irish Catholic.

When she stood for the Scottish Tory leadership in 2011, some wondered how the party’s famed blue-rinse matrons would take to her. In the event, they were less concerned about her being openly gay than they were about her being openly BBC.

This blue-collar Toryism for the 21st century is what made Davidson a star north of the Border and allowed her to reach voters who would otherwise never dream of supporting the Conservatives. Her party will now have to survive without her mercurial magic.

Davidson’s resignation yesterday was as much about the pressures of new motherhood — she gave birth to her first son, Finn, ten months ago — as her disagreements with Boris Johnson about Brexit.

Davidson, an ardent Remainer, accepted the outcome of the 2016 referendum but could not bring herself to back No Deal. She did not believe in it and, besides, she deemed it electoral poison in Scotland, which voted 62 per cent Remain.

Nevertheless, her valedictory speech was free from rancour. She has quit politics at the height of her abilities but she backed the Prime Minister’s efforts to secure a deal with Brussels and urged her fellow Remainers to vote for it.

Given her rocky relationship with the PM, it was a gracious and temperate way to bow out. She is, in the end, a party woman and a patriot.

This won’t lessen the electoral cost of her departure. Davidson almost single-handedly revived the Scottish Tories after a generation on the margins. She doubled their seats in Holyrood, replaced Labour as the main opposition to the SNP and took their Westminster seat tally from one to 13.

Her deputy Jackson Carlaw, a party veteran seen as a safe pair of hands, will take over while the Scottish membership looks for a new figurehead.

That will be no mean feat. In many regards, Davidson was the Scottish Tories. Election leaflets largely consisted of her name and face and polls routinely found her far more popular than her party. There is no obvious replacement with her kind of star power.

This is dismaying for the Tories north of the Border, who had already started to see support flag amid what the Scots call the Brexit ‘clusterbourach’ — a multilayered mess.

For the Tories at Westminster, it blows an ill-wind too. Without the baker’s dozen of Conservative MPs Scotland sent south in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn would presently be Prime Minister, propped up by a rainbow coalition of Celtic nationalists, greens and other noisome malcontents.

If Davidson’s gains are lost, it will be all the harder for Boris Johnson to secure a majority at the next election.

What’s more, the Prime Minister’s task of keeping the Union together now becomes infinitely more daunting. Davidson was the figurehead of Scotland’s anti-nationalist movement, a happy warrior who relished a fight with the SNP and once even ordered Nicola Sturgeon to ‘sit down’ during a tense stand-off in the Scottish Parliament.

Relieved of her most fearsome opponent yet, the incessant Sturgeon will have free rein to whip up more grievance and division, once again setting Scots against each other as her party’s ugly campaign did in the 2014 referendum. There is no one left to stand up to her and no one left to stand up for the Union, at least no one with the tenacity of Ruth Davidson.

The Union’s steeliest defender is gone and the future of the United Kingdom is once again under the sword.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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