Where can Conservatives go if they’re looking to cheer themselves up at their rather nervous, doleful conference? A fringe with Ruth Davidson seems to be the answer. The Scottish Tory leader gave an interview to the Times in a totally packed room at the Midland Hotel this lunchtime, and it was clear that Tory members were there hoping to hear from a Conservative who is doing well and in good cheer.
There’s something about Davidson’s blunt approach to politics that Tory members seem to like. She tells them they’re in a miserable state and need to pull themselves together, and gives the impression that she’s already got it together – rather like the sports teacher who shouted at them a lot at school, or the army officer who turned up to take cadets. ‘I don’t think the party needs saving,’ she told the room. ‘I think it needs to get over its current nervous breakdown and man up a bit. Oh God, I’ve just committed news, haven’t I?
‘We don’t just pack up and go home because they’ve got a bit of a spring in their step.’
It’s an interesting combination of mental health policy and gender fluidity. Davidson is a former journalist. She always knows when she’s committing news, and she came to the fringe apparently determined not to commit anything new on Boris Johnson. She argued that the Foreign Secretary’s comments to the Sun on Saturday were in line with government policy, and refused to enter a discussion about whether he should be sacked. But then she warned her MSPs that ‘if any of you think of writing anything’ without her seeing it first and approving it, ‘you’re out on your ear because nobody is unsackable’. On whether she was the female Boris Johnson, she said ‘I think it’s fair to say I don’t speak as much Greek as the Foreign Secretary’. An interesting approach to not committing news.
Is she a rival to Boris, though? Davidson always insists that her focus is on Holyrood, not Westminster. She repeated that ‘I do want the job of First Minister’ but that ‘I honestly can’t see’ how she would be Tory leader. ‘I am really lucky and I am regularly behind the door at Number 10, but it honestly looks like the loneliest job in the world,’ she said.
Davidson clearly wants to advance her view of Conservatism, even if she doesn’t want to be leader, and sees that there is space in the party for this at the moment. She remarked that if it weren’t for Brexit, there would be more discussion in the party about its future. And she pointed out that her campaign in Scotland went more smoothly because she got to ‘write my own manifesto which didn’t involve taking winter fuel payment off old people’ and a policy on social care which didn’t ‘even take a sentence to knock it down’. The party should have given the social care policy a softer landing, in Davidson’s view, talking about it in the months running up to the election campaign rather than merely the weeks before polling day.
The problem with Davidson even suggesting that she doesn’t want to lead the party is that members who had turned up to feel good about their party for an hour will – once they’ve stopped laughing at her jokes about outlasting Corbyn and whether Arlene Foster would get into bed with her – feel more depressed than they did before. The most energetic, upbeat Conservative who brings colour and excitement to their grey, shellshocked party isn’t in Westminster and is only coaching from the touchline, rather than in play as a leadership contender.