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Can Ruth Davidson save the Tory brand?

When a bird as sagacious as Danny Finkelstein writes a column in The Times headlined ‘If the Tories want to win, they’ll send for Ruth Davidson’ you know something is in the water. Ruthmania is getting out of hand. The Fink accepts that his plan for how Ruth can be brought south from Scotland to save the Tory brand – and idea – in England is under-cooked but, when every other plan is impossible, whatever’s left is the best cake available. 

Davidson, however, has evidently been the star of this year’s conference. That’s what will happen when you’re the only leading Conservative who could be happy with the general election result. And when you look at the cabinet Ruth’s appeal becomes really quite easy to understand. Here, after all, is a Tory politician who can talk like a normal person without seeming to be just a normal person. Here is a Tory politician who seems to enjoy being a Tory without having to boast about it. Here is a Tory politician who just seems to have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is. Most of all, however, she is appealing because she is unavailable. 

I wonder. I wonder if all this is not too much, much too soon. It is true that Davidson’s demise has been predicted before. There is an entire school of Scottish political commentators who, unmoved by her themselves, remain baffled by her ability to ‘cut through’ with other, less blessed, sections of the public. What, they ask, has Ruth Davidson actually done? What, come to think of it, has Ruth Davidson even said that’s particularly noteworthy?

These criticisms are not altogether ill-founded even if they are also peevish. Davidson cheerfully admits that policy has not hitherto been her longest suit. That, she acknowledges, must change if the Conservatives are to be a credible proposition at the next Holyrood election. To that end, she has shifted away from the constitution – this being a horse that desperately needs some rest – and begun talking about the economy, about housing, about capitalism and the proper role of the modern state and so on. It is a start but only, as she again concedes herself, a start. 

Still, politics is a matter of style. And English Tories evidently like what they see in Ruth. This allows them to forgive her heresies. Or, at any rate, it allows them to forgive them right now, since the question of her becoming leader is only hypothetical. It’s not just that Ruth’s a Remainer that’s a problem, it’s that she’s a Remainer who thinks most of the arguments made by Leave were laughable only when they weren’t busy being revolting. She is, as she says herself, wetly pro-immigration. That’s a tough position to hold in today’s Tory party. Granted, she’s a ‘proper Tory’ on crime and punishment issues and she’s instinctively in favour of lower taxation but on most of the issues which dominate our culture wars she’s on the liberal side of the aisle. 

 

In other words, Tories pining for Ruth are pining for an idealised idea of a future party leader more than they are pining for the Ruth who happens to be Ruth. Because she is that winning combination of familiar-and-different, reassuringly similar yet excitingly exotic, it is easy to assume she can be just the kind of leader you want her to be. There is a good deal of projection going on here. 

Besides, there are certain practical details to be considered. It seems understood that Davidson still has a job to do in Scotland. I still think it unlikely that she will become first minister in 2021 but as leader of the largest opposition party that has to be her goal and so she has little option to raise the bar of her ambition to heights no Tory has cleared since, I suppose, the 1950s. But, evidently, if she clears that bar she would have to remain in Scotland (you cannot become first minister and then resign to head south). And if she doesn’t clear it (and this is more likely) then she might not look so attractive to Tories south of the border. 

That all supposes she is at all interested in leading the UK party. Friends allow that Ruth has enjoyed some of the attention she has received lately. How, they say, could she not feel flattered by all this flattery? But they still find it hard to think of her as a kind of Prime Minister in waiting. 

Which makes sense, when you think of it. Alec Douglas-Home was the last prime minister to arrive in office without any kind of parliamentary hinterland or experience. That was not, it is now generally conceded, a great success. Ruth might be the Queen over the water as far as English Tories are concerned but I am not convinced someone who has never been an MP can waltz into the House of Commons and command the attention and respect of the House. Far less can that person expect to be prime minister. This is something Davidson understands even if many of her supposed cheerleaders do not. 

Scotland is a small place, too. Much, much, smaller than many people in England appreciate. Davidson is a bonny fighter and a handy operator but it is fair to say she has not really been tested on a large scale. I do not want to stretch this analogy too far but if Manchester United wanted a new manager they would not these days look to find him in Aberdeen. The gulf between life in opposition at Holyrood and life in government at Westminster is, shall we say, considerable. One is a little easier than the other. 

Perhaps Ruth could make that leap. If it happened she’d give it her best go, certainly. But I fancy it would take time, a commodity that is a rarity at Westminster. People forget this now, but Davidson is no kind of overnight success. She has been leading the Scottish Conservatives for five years now and the first two of those were underwhelming to say the least. Back then, as a political novice, she was learning the ropes too. And it showed. She was clearly bright and articulate and a better media presence than the Tories had been able to put on show for years but, when you got down to the difficult bits, it was also clear she had relatively little to actually say. The idea she might become the next big thing in Scottish, let alone British, politics would have seemed laughable. 

Alex Salmond saved Ruth, of course. The referendum was the beginning of her making. At last the Tories had something to say and, even better, they really meant what they said. Conviction politics returned to Scottish conservatism and, in Ruth, they discovered they had a willing champion. 

And that was the start of Ruthmania. It has been an odd thing to watch. Even some of Davidson’s closest political allies look at it and wonder if it can possibly refer to the same Ruth they like and admire and believe in. There are limits, after all. 

Still, Davidson currently occupies a sweet spot: that of enjoying a measure of influence without responsibility. What she says will be heard but she is not responsible for this government’s shortcomings. In the past she has been damaged by being associated with Theresa May’s government – the Tory result in June might have been even better but for the UK campaign – but it is possible, if she plays her hand correctly, that she can move beyond that. Possible, that is, that the brand of Ruth might soon, at least in Scotland, trump the Tory brand itself. 

That requires voters to indulge Ruth some more and place a considerable amount of trust in her as yet unproven bona fides. But there is always value to be extracted from playing against type and that is a large part of Davidson’s value to the Tories in Scotland. She is a Tory that is not defined by her Toryism. The party in England needs some of that too but they will, I think, have to find their own solutions to a Tory problem that, you know, has been made by the Tory party. 


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