“The greatest politician in the world”, a friend quipped recently, “is the Westminster projection of Ruth Davidson”. I do not think this was meant altogether unkindly. It was, in part, a reflection of the age-old truth that what you cannot have so often seems more attractive than what you can.
Davidson is a formidable communicator; interested in ideas but blessed with the common touch. She has a no-nonsenseness about her that contrasts favourably with the grey men and women occupying chairs around the cabinet table in Downing Street. Better still, she is neither tarnished by nor responsible for Brexit. That alone is enough to give her a freshness that seems especially energising these days. One much-respected political editor in London describes her as the “most naturally talented” politician in these islands. Maybe so. But Davidson is also sufficiently self-aware to know that her successes increasing Tory representation at both Holyrood and Westminster are not all her own work. Structural forces she did not create assisted her greatly.
In the first instance, as she acknowledged herself in a speech at Glasgow University yesterday, asking people to vote Tory to provide a “strong opposition” to the SNP government in Edinburgh is not the same as asking them to vote for a Conservative government. Secondly, last year’s election campaign was, in Scotland, a single-issue battle: should there be a second independence referendum? If you thought not, vote Conservative. Tory ideas and Tory policies outside that narrow remit were almost entirely absent from the fray. The idea Davidson is an effective saleswoman for Toryism writ large, as opposed to Tory constitutionalism, remains almost entirely untested.
Some things really are impossible. Among them, as I wrote in the Times yesterday, is the notion that Michael Gove could be installed as a “caretaker” prime minister before handing over to Davidson in time for the next general election. That would require Gove to be a lame-duck prime minister at the same time as making Davidson a lame-duck leader of the Scottish Tories as she fights the 2021 Holyrood election. A doubly-lame duck ain’t going anywhere.
Still, the idea of Davidson flitting south will not go away no matter how often she indicates she has neither any plans nor even any great desire to do so. And it must be allowed that there are circumstances in which one could see that happening some time after 2022. This is inconvenient for the Scottish Tories who understandably suspect their fortunes are a little too dependent upon Davidson herself. (This is something which will be tested when she heads off on maternity leave this autumn, handing the reins to her deputy, Jackson Carlaw.) The idea Davidson will head south at the earliest possible opportunity will feature heavily in SNP and Labour attacks in 2021. No wonder the Scottish Tories feel they must set fire to this notion every time it is raised.
In the meantime, however, Davidson has grasped that you do not have to be at Westminster to have a say and even, perhaps, some influence. The road to London is not always the noblest prospect imaginable. Indeed, the creation of new mayoralties in Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands demonstrates as much. These are welcome, and overdue, counterweights to an over-mighty central parliament. Even in opposition in Edinburgh, Davidson has a better job than most Tory MPs. And besides, thwarting the SNP – and thereby holding the United Kingdom together – is a bigger job than most cabinet ministries too.
In any case, even if you allow that Davidson might be interested in a career at Westminster, certain problems arise. Does she stand for a Scottish constituency or an English one? If the former – and Scotland is very much her home – then this limits her prospects. I am not sure you could be home secretary, far less prime minister, from a Scottish constituency these days. The FCO and MoD would be available; most other ministries would not.
So if – a mighty if, by the way – she were interested in the highest office of all she would probably need a seat in England which would, in turn, mean forfeiting any ability to write or even influence big-ticket items such as education, health, policing and much else in Scotland. Which, again, is her first home even as Britain is her other home.
It is more attractive, surely, to have influence without responsibility? At present Davidson can make the case for her kind of Conservatism – unfashionably centrist and moderate though it may be – from the safety of the north. Equally, however, British politics is too important to be left to Westminster politicians. There must be space for voices from elsewhere.
That in turn means there must be politicians of stature outside London. Nicola Sturgeon is one such figure – her belief Britain would have a better Brexit inside the single market is entirely compatible with her long-term belief in independence and should be treated as such – and Ruth Davidson is another. In that respect, she does British politics more service by not being an MP than she might if she decamped to London.