From the Work Programme to the bedroom tax, there is a lot this government has got wrong. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty
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The Disability Audit: the eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people

After looking in detail at all the changes to the benefits system in the last five years, it’s only possible to come to one conclusion: the coalition’s attitude towards disabled people has been pointlessly cruel.

Listen to the Conservatives promise the electorate £12bn of social security cuts and you have an insight into the thinking that has plagued the last five years. Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have ended this parliament as they began: demonising disabled people and the chronically ill as expensive drains on the rest of society.

The coalition’s cuts have fallen 18 times harder on severely disabled people in poverty than on the average citizen. Disabled people are losing £28bn of support – with individuals hit by up to six different cuts.

It says something about the scale of this that what you’re about to read does not cover every measure this government has taken against disabled people – there are simply too many to list. Think disappearing respite care for families with severely disabled children, the failing Work Programme, or proposed student allowance cuts that stop young disabled adults being able to go to university.

From the “fit to work” tests to the onslaught of benefit sanctions, the last five years has witnessed the dismantling of disability care, work, and housing support. 

Here are eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people:

1. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Ask a member of the public if they are aware of any of this government’s disability policies and it’s likely one name will come up: Atos. By the time last March the private firm had quit its £500m contract administrating the coalition’s now infamous “fit to work” test – the assessment used to determine if a disabled or chronically ill person is eligible for the unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance – it had become the recipient of unprecedented protests by disability campaigners and an avalanche of slating media headlines: from assessors asking an amputee if his arm would grow back to judging people “fit to work” only for them to die a few weeks later.

But it would be to miss the core of the past five years to think Atos – rather than the government itself – created this crisis. Atos – and its replacement, Maximus – are the private sector monkey to the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) organ grinder. It was the DWP that designed the Work Capability Assessment and it’s the DWP who despite a committee of MPs calling the test not fit for purposehave continued to defend it.

Last year, it emerged that people with degenerative conditions – conditions that, by definition, are only going to get worse – were being judged by the WCA as likely to “recover” enough to look for work. A third of people with disabilities such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis are being denied the full version of ESA and pushed into “work-related activity” – the group expected to be well enough to work, that gets less money, and is routinely sanctioned.

This is an assessment that is now quantitatively proven to inflict damage to disabled people’s bodies and minds. Over 60 per cent of disabled people going through the work capability assessment report being in pain afterwards. Others say their condition was made worse or their recovery delayed. One claimant surveyed by Leonard Cheshire Disability, who has progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days”. She went on to have a stroke a few weeks later.

Keep this in mind when noting that the change the government decided to make to ESA was to reduce the support many going through the process could receive. By mid-way through the coalition’s time in government, the DWP had added “time limits” to how long some chronically ill or disabled claimants could claim benefits. This was part of a wider attempt to enact conditionality to the benefit system (see number eight). As I reported in 2013, 700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability had their ESA taken as a result. The means test brought in was only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely eight grand a year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Asked on the election trail where the Conservatives would get their £12bn “welfare savings” from, David Cameron has pointed to “getting people off” ESA. “Part of this is continuing with a programme that we’ve had…,” he told the BBC. “We’re going to continue with that, successfully reducing welfare…” Pain, scandal, and poverty is apparently “success”.  

2. Personal Independence Payments (PIP)  

At the same time as the crisis with ESA, the government decided to scrap a second key disability benefit: Disability Living Allowance (DLA), replacing it with the “tougher” Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

As of 2012, 3.2 million disabled people were receiving DLA to help pay for their additional care or mobility needs. It does not take a genius to predict that re-testing millions of disabled people is an enormous undertaking – and one that, by nature of being a benefit that people use to feed themselves or leave the house, would need to be done carefully and competently.  

A year into the reform, parliament’s public spending watchdog was calling the government’s handling of PIP “nothing short of a fiasco” – with widespread delays and reports of claimants being hospitalised due to the stress of the process.  

The DWP have been forced to delay the national rollout (many areas of the country are still on DLA), as well increase predictions for how long people would have to wait for support or even to get an assessment. Currently, almost 200,000 disabled and chronically ill people in “reform areas” are stuck in a backlog waiting to be assessed. Guess who the government outsourced the job to for £400m? Atos (and second private firm, Capita).  

What is particularly troubling with PIP is that – due to the flaws in the assessment itself – these backlogs are essentially a long wait to nowhere. Unlike DLA, Personal Independence Payment is a points-based assessment, awarded on “descriptors” on a range of activities (such as washing and bathing, or communicating verbally) and only has two rates (DLA had three). Campaigners warned from the offset that, just like with ESA and the Work Capability Assessment, this would mean a crude, inaccurate assessment. Disabled people are now finding themselves waiting a year for help, only to be told they are not eligible for the new benefit, despite having severe – and blindingly obvious – needs.

Paula Ranking*, 61, from Runcorn, Cheshire, applied for PIP back in October 2013. She has fibromyalgia and depression, leaving her with chronic fatigue, poor memory, and severe muscle pain. It took her until June 2014 to be given an assessment and two months later, she was told she had been rejected for the benefit entirely.

After requesting a copy of her assessment report four times in order to appeal the decision, she tells me she saw it was “full of lies and omissions”.  

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading… The assessor made out I was fit and athletic,” Paula says. “She said she watched me walk 60 meters to the office with no problem but I was in absolute agony. It was early morning and my painkillers hadn’t kicked in.”

“She pointed out in her report that I crossed my leg at one point. I did because my calf muscle felt like it was having a knife twisted in it. I let out a yelp when I grabbed my leg but she didn’t mention that. I could go on and on.”

Rather than being a necessary reform, the scrapping of DLA – and introduction of PIP – was brought in on the (false) premise that vast numbers of disabled people were making unnecessary and “fraudulent claims”. Before anyone had actually been assessed, Iain Duncan Smith was announcing an estimated half a million people would lose their entitlement under PIP – making a “saving” of around 20 per cent, or £2bn, of the current scheme. Instead of an anomaly or a horrible accident, there is a lurking feeling that benefit rejections like Paula’s are exactly what was intended.

I think of this as Paula tells me she is “terrified” that she has no one to go with her to her appeal – and again, a few weeks later, when she emails me, upset to say she arrived at her appeal only to be told it was the day before. Due to the memory loss and fatigue that are symptoms of her illness, she had got the dates mixed up. There was no support in place to her help, despite the fact her illness leaves her cognitively unable to deal with the process and physically needing up to eighteen hours sleep a day.

A month later, Paula emails to tell me she’s finally been awarded the benefit – at the standard rate.

I missed out on the rest due to the poor help I received filling the form in,” she tells me. “The judge did say he had gone on my doctor’s reports and disregarded the Atos report.” 

It’s hard to imagine this is much of a reprieve. Paula’s been £190 short on her mortgage each month for the last year. 

“Don’t believe all you hear about everything getting paid for on benefits,” she says. “I could lose my home.”   

3. Bedroom tax

Even in the anti-benefits climate that has developed, the image of a disabled person being evicted does not sit well with the public. The bedroom tax – which cut the housing benefit of social tenants deemed to be “under-occupying” their home – saw what was a flagship coalition policy of “fairness” and “cost-cutting” turn into arguably the most unpopular measure of the parliament.    

Almost two thirds of the tenants hit by the policy are from households that contain someone who has a disability – that’s over 400,000. It didn’t take much to realize that a policy penalising people for needing extra space would end up hurting the disabled and chronically ill. The government’s own impact assessment told them.

Back at the start of 2013, before the policy came into force, I reported the reality of cutting benefits for having a so-called “spare room”: parents of grown disabled children losing money for storing oxygen cylinders and adult sized nappies, to wheelchair users told to leave a home with twenty years’ worth of adaptations.

What has followed in the two years since has been a lesson in how not to conduct social security. Only 6 per cent of people affected by the bedroom tax have “downsized”, largely down to the fact there was never enough smaller properties for them to move to. Local authority Discretionary Housing Payments – held up as the safety net to protect disabled tenants – have actually ended up more likely to be given to non-disabled tenants.  Savings have been nominal – and have only come off the back of pushing some of the most disadvantaged people in society into debt, rent arrears, and worsening health.

The bedroom tax has produced a sense of “hopelessness verging on desperation”, research in the Journal of Public Health found last month – that sort of widespread, every day pain that has the deepest effect.

If the policy’s architects needed something more graphic, they could perhaps look to the case in the Liverpool Echo this week: a 32 year old who had all his toes amputated after being forced to spend last winter sleeping in a tent. Mitchell Keenan, from Skelmersdale, in West Lancashire, was evicted from his four-bed house because the bedroom tax meant his family could no longer pay the rent. He was diagnosed with frostbite six weeks ago when his family noticed his toes had turned black. His 62-year-old father, Keith, also evicted, has malnourishment, scabies and dementia.

4. Council tax

The bedroom tax may have grabbed the headlines but it came at the same time as another, equally appalling hit on the ability of the so-called “vulnerable” to pay the rent. From April 2013, the government slashed funding for council tax benefit by £500m, leaving cash-strapped local authorities to decide how the remainder should be distributed. The result? 2.3m families previously exempt now have to pay at least a portion of their council tax – that’s the poorest, the disabled, and carers. 

Almost 300,000 of these people have also been affected by the bedroom tax. That’s the added kick of the coalition’s cuts: they have been arranged in a way that means disabled people have lost multiple strands of support at once.

The consequences of a policy decision like cutting council tax support are devastating and they are fast. Council tax is one of the few debts that carry a threat of prison. Miss a payment and the arrears mount quickly. Before you know it, a court summons has arrived at your home and there is talk of eviction and re-possession.

Susan Smith, 50, has council tax arrears of over £1,300. She’s lived in her flat in London for fourteen years and tells me she had never had to pay council tax before the cuts to support came in last year. Susan is an example of the sort of person the state used to protect: she has mental health problems – what she describes to me as “chronic mental and emotional fatigue” – severe enough to result in repeated hospitalisation. She was already struggling to keep a roof over her head before the month dubbed “Black April” kicked in, with rent arrears of almost £5,000 and an ongoing eviction threat. The council tax changes have piled on more debt and more psychological pressure.

“I know at times like this I’m vulnerable to episodes,” she tells me. [I’ve been] detached, incapable of going to the shop, and neglected eating properly for days, feeling the need to stay in bed and rest my brain.”  

Her council, Haringey, employed an “enforcement agency” to “remove and sell off” her goods unless she pays them £10 a week from her Disability Living Allowance – the benefit awarded to help her with the additional needs that come with her illness.  

“I’ve experienced relapses through [the] stress and anxiety [of it], where I’ve not been able to function properly,” she tells me. “[So I haven’t been able to] respond effectively to threatening letters and gather the information they require.”

Despite Susan agreeing to pay them £40 of her disability benefit a month, the council is continuing to threaten her with legal action. Susan shows me the letter she received on Monday – asking her with almost quaint politeness to “please pay £115.58 within seven days” or “legal action will be taken after a further seven days for the full amount of £1,150.38.” 

It is unclear where someone dealing with mental illness with set, low income is expected to get over a thousand pounds from in less than two weeks.

5. Independent Living Fund (ILF)  

Crucially, the coalition’s cuts have been a two-tier threat to disabled people keeping their home: not only through the ability to pay the rent but to live independently at all.

For its users, the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – the standalone fund that helps 18,000 of some of the most severely disabled people to live in their own homes – is the difference between living independently as an adult or a toss up between clock-timed care slots and going into residential care.

The government’s much-fought decision to, from June 2015, close the ILF has come to symbolise perhaps the most devastating message of austerity: disabled people’s dignity is now too costly. 

Helen Johnson, 43, has cerebral palsy – meaning she uses a wheelchair and has minimal movement – and has used ILF since she was 18.  Talking from her bungalow just outside Doncaster, she tells me that, added to her own financial contributions, the ILF has allowed her to stay in the home she grew up in. Three rotating personal assistants help her with basic care needs: going to the toilet when she wants, washing, and putting medicated cream on her fragile skin. But, like every ILF user I’ve spoken to, what’s striking is how the fund also means Helen’s been able to have what most of us would say constitutes living rather than existing: to study, work part-time when her health allowed, enjoy music festivals and go to comedy shows with friends.

Listen to a politician talk about the decision to close the ILF and they will tell you that any disabled person currently being supported by the fund will simply be transferred to local authority care provision. What they don’t tend to say is that the money won’t be ring-fenced, meaning local councils – already shredding social care (see number six) – will have no obligation to spend it on current recipients. 

It gives some insight into what is to come for Helen that she tells me that, before the decision to close the ILF was announced, she asked her local authority to “top up” her care hours (her elderly mum helps her with her nighttime care) – and was told to go back to apply to the ILF as the process “would be easier and a lot less complicated”.

Perhaps the darkest part is that none of this could be called news to the government. The DWP's own research says it's "almost certain that closure of the ILF will mean that the majority of users will face changes to the way their support is delivered, including the real possibility of a reduction to the funding they currently receive". This could mean "the loss of a carer or personal assistant".

According to a series of freedom of information requests by Disabled People Against Cuts, over half the local authorities that responded to the government's ILF consultation said the move would either result in significantly reduced care packages that would affect people's ability to enjoy any quality of life, or in more admissions to residential care homes.  

It might be worth taking a moment to imagine the reality of that.

Helen is a “group 1 ILF recipient” which means, as an original user of the fund, she has never had any involvement with social services before. She tells me that her local authority – nor anyone else – even contacted her when they started talking about closing the ILF and that communication throughout has “so far been non existent.”

“I contacted social services myself in early January, because they hadn't been in touch,” she says. “A social worker visited me but admitted that although they knew changes would happen, she did a basic assessment but then said she was due to go on a training course as the paper work was due to change… I’ve not heard anything else as yet.”

The feeling of a lack of control over her own life is evident.

“I do feel very ignored and totally in the dark regarding the future,” she adds.  

6. Social care  

It may give a hint to the government’s approach to protecting disabled citizens that the ministers pointing to social care as the solution to ILF closure are the same ones who have cut the system to the bone.

Social care has had over £3.5bn taken from its funding by the coalition over the past four years, according to Adass, directors of adult social services. The result has been councils forced to reduce the number of disabled people dubbed as eligible for it – essentially abandoning adults with severe disabilities to live without even basic help. It has made few headlines but two out of five disabled people in this country are now unable to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house due to underfunded services in their area.

Kenneth Fletcher, 23, has cerebral palsy and is partially sighted. In 2011, he moved out of his family home and into a shared bungalow with three other disabled people and what was said to be 24-hour on-site support. At the age of 19, what he says he was looking forward to are the basics of independence any of us want as we form a life: socialising with friends, maybe going on holiday with his new housemates. He says that after a few weeks in his new home, he realized “something didn’t feel right”.

“Everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. Why would you go to bed so early every night?” Kenneth explains. “It turned out my new housemates had no choice – they were being ‘put’ to bed early, even if they didn’t want to go.”

Kenneth says he remembers coming home to find one of his housemates, who he describes as a girl who uses a wheelchair, sitting at the kitchen table with nothing to do.

“She’d just been left there on her own,” he says. “Another time I came home to find two of my housemates with their wheelchairs facing the wall. I don’t know how long they had been like that – hours maybe.”   

Despite intervention by Kenneth’s mum and social worker, he tells me nothing changed. After a year, he was able to move into another supported-living bungalow that he describes as “not perfect” but better.

It says something about the standard of independent living for disabled adults in this country that, when discussing his expectations with disability charity Scope, Kenneth says he hopes for the ability to “choose what time to get up in the morning” and “what to have for lunch.”

Treating disabled people like cattle is the cheaper option. By the end of the decade, the Local Government Association and Adass estimate there will be a £4.3bn funding “black hole” in adult social care. Scope’s report, “The Other Care Crisis”, puts it clearly: “Austerity has pushed the system to crisis point...turning back the clock on disabled people’s independence.”

7. Access to Work

For a government obsessed with “hardworking families” and “making work pay”, changes like PIP or social care have not only been immoral but counterproductive. Cutting the support disabled people need to get dressed and leave the house tends to make it difficult for them to be able to turn up to work.

Cuts to Access to Work – the fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – is the most blatant example of this. Or it would be, if the government were not trying very hard to bury them. (The Department for Work and Pensions only agreed to publish the guidance that shows who is even eligible for support after campaigners threatened legal action.) Go a bit deeper and we know that limits have been placed on the amount of help available – resulting in a “climate of suspicion” around claims, payment delays, cuts in support hours, and risk of disabled people losing their jobs. 

Bernie Vincent, who uses a wheelchair and has cognitive impairments, works as a training manager at an independent living centre. Her disability means she needs help to process and interpret information and for the last twenty years she’s relied on the Access to Work scheme to help fund a support worker. From May 2014, she had her funding cut by 60 per cent. There had been no change in her disability and she had been given no new assessment – only filling in what she describes as a review form.   

“I’ve always had support from Access to Work. Without funding, [working for the past twenty years] wouldn’t have been possible,” she tells me. “Now it’s all under threat.”

The first thing Bernie heard about her funding being cut was when her office manager told her they hadn’t been paid. She tells me she then had to start “chasing things up”.

“[When I called them,] the person on the other end of the phone was robotic, as if she was reading from a script,” she says.  “I couldn’t take in what I was being told. I kept asking for an explanation only to be informed that Access to Work only fund 20 per cent of support needs.”

“There I was telling this stranger I’d never spoken to before that I’d likely lose my job, that I wouldn’t be able to pay by mortgage. Nothing made a difference.”  

Bernie tells me she made “numerous” phone calls, sent emails, and made an official complaint but the DWP went ahead with her funding cut.  This is not surprising. The DWP has been warned by the work and pensions select committee that the process by which people could challenge decisions made about their support funding needed to be “clearer and more transparent”.

The cuts in her funding mean Bernie now has to spend two days at work without her support worker. On the days she still has support, she leaves early in order to “make best use” of the funding and ends up making up her contracted hours at home without help.

Left without her support worker, Bernie tells me she becomes “anxious”, her “mind swims with information”, and everything she does “takes longer”.

“I worry can I make my targets, how this will impact on the others in my [office] team,” she says. “If I don’t have adequate support at work, I can’t continue to do my job.” 

“Society sees disabled people like me going about our lives and think we just jump out of bed, get on with our lives, perhaps in the same way as they do,” she adds. “What people don’t see is the stuff that goes on behind closed doors to make this happen…how critical it is we have the funding and services to just get on with an average day.”  

8. Benefit sanctions

This myth that it is shrinking government – loss of support or added conditionality – that helps workers has propped up much of the coalition’s employment thinking. It gave birth to one of the worst developments of the past five years: the benefit sanction system.

There are no legitimate grounds to remove the money people need in order to eat, whether that person begins as the picture of health or is sitting in a wheelchair. But it gives some insight into the mentality of the system that as of last year, the number of benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people had risen by 580 per cent. Like the 23-year-old pregnant woman who the recent MP-led inquiry heard was receiving employment and support allowance for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first baby eight months earlier. She had missed one work-focused interview because on that day she had found it too difficult to leave her flat – so they stopped her money, and left her to walk two miles to a food bank after going without a hot meal for a fortnight. Or the young man with learning difficulties who had his benefits stopped for being four minutes late for the JobCentre – despite the fact he couldn’t tell the time. He was later found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric, gas, or food.

Listen to Esther McVey or IDS and they will tell you these cases are ‘vulnerable’ claimants who have “fallen through the cracks,” as if what has happened to these people happened by magic. It didn’t. The Coalition brought in measures to increase the amount of money they were able to take from sanctioned disabled and chronically ill people. The application for hardship payments – the emergency fund meant to, essentially, keep people alive during their sanction period - have been designed in a way that is too difficult for vulnerable people to understand. A fact that the MP’s inquiry into the sanction system said means: “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”. Cameron chose to ignore this point when Andrew Marr questioned him this month on the death of David Clapson – the diabetic who died because a sanction meant he couldn’t afford to keep his insulin in a fridge. Or that JSA claimants aren’t even allowed to use the hardship fund for 15 days after being sanctioned. It is worth noting that this group will include disabled and ill people, falsely judged as “fit to work” (see number one) and put on JSA.  

This is a system that is morally rotten. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction claimants’ benefits – and even have league tables for job centres to compete against each other. Clapson is not the only one to die as a result. The DWP have been forced to admit they’ve investigated 49 deaths since 2012 “associated with a DWP activity”.  

It is telling that the sanction inquiry found there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions actually help people find work. It is a message that could sum up the coalition’s entire catalogue of disability policies: pointlessly cruel.

*Some names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Is it Ruth Davidson's destiny to save the Union?

Ruth Davidson is a Christian, gay, kick-boxing army reservist who made a passionate case for the EU and has transformed the fortunes of the Tories in Scotland.

In the end it made no difference, but during the EU referendum campaign Ruth Davidson achieved something that nobody else did: she made the case for Remain sound thrillingly righteous. In a live, televised BBC debate at Wembley Arena in London, she denounced the “lies” of the Leave campaign, turning to the crowd to declare, twice: “You deserve the truth!” Funny, fervent and pugnacious, Davidson pounced on the bluff assertions of Boris Johnson with gusto, a terrier savaging a shaggy dog. As she departed the podium, flashing a light-bulb grin, she left a question hanging in the air: how far can Ruth Davidson go?

On the face of it, it was a risk for the ­Remain campaign to send the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to Wembley, when most of its persuadable voters lived in England. Yet, according to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s pollster and an influential Remain strategist, “Ruth’s name was inked in from the beginning.” After the debate, nobody called this confidence misplaced. Davidson was acclaimed as the star of the night. English observers began to appraise her as a major player in national politics, even as a possible future prime minister.

The EU debate was, for Davidson and for Scots, the least energetically contested of four recent contests, following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015 and the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. In the last one, Davidson led her party to second place, overtaking Labour, and the Conservatives became the main opposition to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalists. It was their best result in nearly 60 years and evidence of an astonishing turnaround.

When Davidson was elected leader in 2011, it was like being declared the mayor of a ghost town. Her party’s core voters had long fled, first to Labour and then to the SNP. Margaret Thatcher and successive national Tory leaders had made it almost impossible for Scots to admit to voting Conservative, or even to being friends with anyone who did. It wasn’t just that the Tories were poisonous to the touch; they were on the verge of irrelevance. They held 15 out of the 129 seats at Holyrood. They barely mattered.

They matter now. The stigma of voting Tory has not been entirely erased, but the Conservative brand has been saved, or perhaps subsumed by its Scottish leader’s personal brand. On the ballot paper in May, voters were invited to put a cross next to the slogan “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”; party activists knocking on doors introduced themselves as being from “Team Ruth”. A recent poll found that Davidson was the most popular politician in Scotland, surpassing Sturgeon.

Ruth Davidson has been a politician for just five years. If you need reminding of how hard it is, even if you are clever and able, to become a high-level political performer on half a decade’s experience, recall the defining moments of a few Labour MPs of the 2010 generation: Liz Kendall’s flameout, Chuka Umunna’s failure to launch, Owen Smith’s bellyflop. David Cameron’s rise might seem to have been comparably quick, but he had been working in Westminster politics, on and off, for 13 years before he ­became an MP. Three years before being elected leader of the Scottish Tories, Davidson hadn’t even joined a political party.

Davidson may be the most gifted politician in Britain. “She’s a natural, and they are very rare in politics,” Cooper told me. The question for her is whether she will ever convert talent into power.

 

*****

In August, I went to see Davidson speak in Belfast at an event organised by Amnesty International on behalf of the campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. She made a case for equal marriage that was also a case for the institution of marriage. “More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that, too, and I want it to be recognised in the same way,” she said.

She paused to note that the passage was taken from an address that she made at Holyrood during the first reading of Scotland’s equal marriage bill in 2013: “I’ll be honest. I was absolutely bricking it.”

Davidson met her partner, Jen Wilson, in 2014. The couple got engaged this year on holiday in Paris, just after the May election campaign. Wilson, who is 34 and from County Wexford, Ireland, works in the charity sector. In 2015, she appeared with Davidson in a party political broadcast, which showed the couple strolling along Elie Harbour, Fife, and taking selfies with Davidson’s parents. It wasn’t a big deal and yet, at the same time, it felt significant. As Davidson noted in her speech, homosexuality was still a prosecutable offence in Scotland in the year she was born (it was not decriminalised north of the border until 1980).

After the event, I met her for a drink with members of her team at the bar of her hotel. She had returned to Edinburgh from a holiday in Spain in the early hours of that morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Belfast for a full day of engagements. Yet she bristled with energy, giving the illusion of movement even when she was sitting still, her attention distributed between emails on her phone, the conversation at the table and the level of everyone’s drinks. She had enjoyed the event, she said, although she had been hoping for more argument.

In September, we met again for a longer conversation in her small office at Holyrood. In person, she is friendly in a businesslike way, mentally fast (often starting her response before the question is finished) and generous with her answers. As she talks, her eyes fix you in your seat. “Ruth is a brilliant reader of people, including our opponents, and spots weaknesses very early,” her colleague Adam Tomkins told me. “She can see through me. I would hate to play poker with her.”

Before our meeting, I watched First Minister’s Questions, the first after the summer recess. The atmosphere in the chamber at Holyrood is very different from that in the Commons: quieter, less theatrical. The leaders of the main parties are not cheered to their seat. Sturgeon, dressed in black, walked to her desk at the front of the hall, unacknowledged by her colleagues, as a cabinet secretary answered a question on national parks. Davidson entered shortly afterwards, in a violently pink jacket that contrasted vividly with the muted tones preferred by most MSPs.

In the chamber, Davidson often holds her own against the First Minister. The two have contrasting styles: Sturgeon poised and coolly effective, Davidson a study in controlled fury. “Ruth has a real aggression to her,” says the journalist Kenny Farquharson, a columnist for the Times in Scotland. “She’s always looking for the next fight.”

 

*****

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson was born at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh in 1978, the second of two daughters to Douglas and Elizabeth Davidson. Her family lived in Selkirk, where her father worked at the wool mill. This was Douglas’s second career: his first had been as a professional footballer, for Partick Thistle and Selkirk FC. The Davidsons moved to Fife when Ruth was a child, after the mill closed. Her parents were Tory voters, without being especially political.

When Ruth Davidson was five years old, she was run over by a truck near her home and nearly killed. The accident shattered her leg, fractured her pelvis and severed her femoral artery, leading to a huge loss of blood. In interviews, she makes quick work of what other politicians might be tempted to craft into a narrative turning point. “My legs are still a bit squint . . . but it has never really stopped me from doing anything,” she told the Scotsman in 2012.

Her family was Presbyterian, in the Church of Scotland, a more austere and morally fiery tradition than Anglicanism. (A Scottish journalist remarked to me, “To us, Anglicanism is Christianity with all the fibre removed.”) Davidson is a practising Christian. Her piety does not extend to abstention from alcohol or profanity – she is a world-class swearer – but it is manifest in her moral muscularity, preacher-like cadences and horror of malingering.

In Fife, Davidson attended Buckhaven High School, a large comprehensive with a working-class intake. She is often referred to as working class, which isn’t quite right. Her mother and father were working-class Glaswegians. Her mother left school at 15, her father at 16. Douglas grew up on an estate in Castlemilk, a district then infamous for its deprivation and crime. He was one of the few Protestants in a solidly Catholic community, during a time of deep divisions.

The Davidsons, however, were upwardly mobile. Douglas had been a manager at the mill in Selkirk and then ran a whisky distillery on the Isle of Arran. The children had the importance of effort and self-improvement drummed into them. Ruth has recalled getting a school report that gave her a 1 for results in science – the best possible mark – and a 2 for effort. “I got a mini-bollocking for that. My mum would have been much happier if it had been the other way round.” Both children attended university (Ruth’s sister is now a doctor).

Davidson did well at school and excelled at sport. She played squash for her county and tennis to a level at which she can teach it. In adulthood, she took up kick-boxing, condemning herself to be forever tagged as a “kick-boxing lesbian” in the British press. Sport has been central in her life, not so much a leisure activity as a method of striving for new goals.

After graduating from Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and took part in debating competitions, ­Davidson moved to Glasgow and started a career in journalism. In 2002 she joined BBC Scotland, becoming a radio presenter on a drive-time show, reporting on gifted pets one minute and traffic disasters the next. By all accounts, she was excellent: fluent, well prepared, interested in whomever she was talking to. Her producer Pat Stevenson remembers her as “a fantastic interviewer, incisive and forensic, able to spot bullshit a mile off. And she was fun.” Her abiding image of Davidson at the microphone is of a head thrown back in laughter.

Stevenson recalls being vaguely aware that Davidson held right-of-centre views, though these were less of a talking point with her BBC colleagues than her Christianity, or, even more so, her weekends spent deep in a forest, being shouted at while trying to read a map. Davidson served as a signaller in the Territorial Army for three years from 2003 and trained to be an officer. “It was very tough,” says Steve Bargeton, who oversaw the officers’ course. “Most fail or drop out, but Ruth flew through. She had tremendous character.” Davidson won a place at Sandhurst but broke her back during a training exercise, forcing her to end her military career.

She soon set herself a new goal: to be elected to parliament by the time she was 40. In 2009, she left the BBC and joined the Tory party. Davidson has attributed her career change to David Cameron’s call, after the MPs’ expenses scandal, for people who had never been political to get involved, but it is likely she had already decided that politics was the next hill to climb. Either way, she quickly acquired influential sponsors in Edinburgh and London. By the 2010 election, she was head of the private office of Annabel Goldie, the then leader of the Scottish Tories. She stood for an unwinnable Commons seat in Glasgow, twice, both times winning barely 5 per cent of the vote.

Even as the elections to Holyrood came around in May 2011, she was not expected to make it to parliament. She was second on Glasgow’s regional list, which all but ruled her out. A couple of months before the vote, however, the candidate at the top of the list was removed following allegations of past financial problems. The Conservative Party chairman promptly promoted Davidson, who was elected to Holyrood (she won a constituency seat of her own this year in Edinburgh, where she now lives).

In the 2011 election, the SNP, under Alex Salmond, won an unprecedented overall majority in Holyrood. This success transformed the politics of Scotland, and thus that of the UK. Labour’s grip on the votes of working-class Scots was broken. The Conservative Party, already a corpse, failed to twitch. It at once became clear that Salmond had won a mandate for a referendum on independence and that this would be the defining question of Scottish politics until it was resolved.

On the Monday after the election, Annabel Goldie announced that she was resigning. Four days after her election to the Scottish Parliament, Davidson began to consider a run at the leadership of her party. She was encouraged by senior figures, including David Mundell (then a Scotland Office minister, now the Scottish party’s sole MP in Westminster) and David Cameron. In her way stood the Scottish Tories’ deputy leader, Murdo Fraser, an Edinburgh-based lawyer who had been a Conservative activist for a quarter of a century. It was, by common consent, his turn.

Fraser, sensing a threat, committed to an act of excessive radicalism that proved to be his undoing: he proposed that the party ditch the name “Conservative” and break entirely from its southern counterpart. He argued that this measure (Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, called it the euthanasia option) was the only way to move on from the past and compete with the SNP as a truly Scottish party. He did not recommend a new name; mooted alternatives included the Scottish Reform Party, the Caledonians and Scotland First.

Fraser’s gambit propelled Davidson into the race. She felt that his proposal would unmoor the Scottish Conservatives from their purpose, and also that it was politically naive, as there was little chance that voters would not realise that this was the same party in different clothes. In tactical terms, Fraser had opened up space for a candidate to run on preserving the status quo, rarely an unpopular position among Tories. For his challenger, it was a ripe alignment of conviction and opportunity, a ball bouncing into the perfect position for a killer forehand. Davidson declared on 4 September 2011 and won the final round against Fraser, 55 per cent to 45 per cent. She was 32.

 

****

It is easy to underestimate how much politics, in opposition, is simply about getting noticed. When Davidson became leader, Scottish politics was a (rather one-sided) battle between the SNP and Labour. She needed to fight her way to centre stage and into the calculations of voters – there wasn’t much point repositioning the Tory brand if nobody was watching. As Andrew Cooper put it to me, “You didn’t get to the toxic problem until you dealt with the irrelevant problem.”

Davidson excels at getting noticed. She has – even if she would not appreciate the comparison – a Donald Trump-like understanding of how to get and keep attention. She is at home on social media, something that is true of all the Scottish party leaders, though Davidson’s tweets are the most fearless and funny. She is also an artist of the photo opportunity: here she is in a pink scarf, bestriding the gun of a tank, a Union flag fluttering in the background; playing the bagpipes, or being played by them, eyes popping out of her head; smashing a football into the back of the net.

Such photos do more than get attention. They reinforce the sense of a person unintimidated by the rules of political protocol; indeed, of someone who scorns limitations. There is something almost cartoonish about Davidson’s public profile: the big eyes, the flashing grin, the unstoppable, barrelling walk. In debates, as she winds up to a clinching point, you can, if you half close your eyes, see her swinging her arm through a hundred revolutions before extending it across the stage to smack an opponent. She is one of us, and not like us at all. Flattened by a truck, she gets up and walks away.

Davidson’s willingness to play the fool wouldn’t work if she was not able to convey seriousness at the same time. The leadership race set the template for her political profile as an untraditional traditionalist. Davidson doesn’t look or talk like a typical Tory, but her ideological touchstones are profoundly Conservative. She is a British patriot, a churchgoer, a passionate supporter of the armed forces, an advocate for marriage, a believer in self-reliance. On becoming leader, she set about reviving a type of blue-collar Conservatism not seen since the 1980s. The former Scottish Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor coined the expression “tenement Tories”: working-class voters with conservative instincts, sceptical of high taxes, patriotic but not nationalist. Davidson, the daughter of tenement Tories, is able to pitch herself as one of them.

To do so has required performing a balancing act with respect to her party in Westminster. She admired Cameron and, politically speaking, was in his debt. Her leadership is staked on the unity of the Scottish and English branches of the party. Yet she has managed, somehow, to position herself against the party’s privileged English elite – the “private-school boys”. Her evident animus against Boris Johnson is both strategic and personal. During the EU campaign, as the polls tightened, she asked Downing Street if it wanted her to go on a “suicide mission” against Johnson, a senior aide to the former prime minister says.

 

****

In Ruth Davidson’s first year as leader, her inexperience showed. She made a prolonged and embarrassing climbdown from a foolhardy promise, made during the leadership campaign, to draw a “line in the sand” against further devolution. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, a skilled and pitiless debater, successfully patronised her every week at First Minister’s Questions. An impression that she had been promoted prematurely was discreetly given credence by members of her own party (most Scottish Tory MSPs had voted for Fraser).

Davidson was learning not only how to be a leader in public, but how to manage an organisation, a skill for which journalism had not prepared her. A rule change that came into effect when she took over gave her far-reaching powers over the party. As she says, she suddenly found herself responsible for MSPs, staff and activists, but with “no idea how to manage”. She fell back on her training in the Territorial Army. “I had to apply what I learned about leadership in the British army. The toolkit I used was from officer training: how to identify problems, make decisions, bring people with you.”

At Wembley this summer, debating national security, Davidson remarked icily, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s ever worn the Queen’s uniform.” Her TA training provides her with a rhetorical trump card and legitimises photo opportunities on tanks, but it does more for her than that. Military metaphors pervade her thinking and fire her imagination. One of her favourite books is Defeat into Victory, an account of the Allied forces campaign in Burma in the Second World War, by William Slim, a British field marshal. “It is the best examination of leadership you’ll ever find,” she told me, and then related, excitedly, an encounter she once had with a Second World War veteran who had witnessed Slim addressing his troops.

After getting heard, Davidson’s most urgent task as leader was to overhaul a demoralised and moribund institution. She focused on candidate recruitment – looking for better signallers. “I wanted to rebuild around the message carriers,” Davidson told me. After their run of bad elections, the Tories had stopped trying to pick winners: “They were asking good, hard-working foot soldiers to stand, just to get a name on the ballot.” Long-standing members would be asked to put their name down and reassured that they wouldn’t have to do anything, and so, by and large, they didn’t.

Davidson put together a new candidates’ board: a former human resources director for Royal Mail, a QC who had been a world champion debater, an expert in corporate leadership. She designed a series of tests based on the officer assessment test that she underwent before Sandhurst (“minus the assault course and press-ups”).

Applicants were asked to sit around a ­table with three others, each with a piece of paper in front of them. When they turned it over, they discovered who they were and what they needed to solve. A new policy was about to affect voters in four neighbouring constituencies, but in different ways: it would be detrimental to those in the first constituency, neutral for those in the second and third and advantageous for those in the fourth. Each candidate represented a different constituency. How would they agree a position?

“It was about making people interact in a way they hadn’t before,” Davidson said. “I made every sitting MSP go through it, including myself.” Her aim was to assemble a team of experts, from business, law, the armed forces and the third sector.

Among her recruits was Adam Tomkins, a professor of public law at Glasgow University, now an MSP and one of Davidson’s closest allies. “By late 2011, it was clear the referendum was coming. I wasn’t involved in party politics but I was a strong believer in the Union and I knew I wanted to do something. I wasn’t a Tory, though. In fact, I had been pretty hostile to them.” He offered his expertise to Labour but came away from meetings with the party’s leaders depressed by their tribalism. Davidson was different: intellectually curious, open-minded, eager to take advice. In 2013, she formally asked him to help the Tories formulate a constitutional policy and he agreed. On New Year’s Day 2014, he joined the Conservatives.

The Scottish independence referendum was the making of Davidson as a national leader, as it was of Nicola Sturgeon, who escaped Salmond’s shadow to become a force in her own right. In TV debates during the campaign, Davidson was the most compelling defender of the Union, capable of winning sympathy for even its most unpopular ingredients. “Ruth emerged as someone who could defend Trident and get applause,” says the journalist David Torrance.

After the referendum in September 2014, she once again had to battle for attention. She needed to convince the media that the Conservatives might yet play a big role at Holyrood – that she was more than an amusing sideshow. The referendum had shown her how decayed Labour’s relationship was with its own voters, and this gave her renewed impetus. She also grasped that, far from enabling Scottish politics to move on from independence, the referendum was still having the opposite effect.

In September 2015 the new Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, announced that Labour MSPs would have a free vote on independence in the event of another referendum. In April 2016, she committed to an increase in the top rate of income tax. Together, the two moves were an attempt to move past the issue of independence. “I want people who voted both Yes and No to see that the Labour Party is the vehicle for progressive change in this country,” she said. Yet Dugdale misjudged the relentlessly centrifugal dynamic of Scottish politics after the referendum. Every policy position – from tax rates to tuition fees – returned to the question of what it signalled about Scotland’s relationship with England.

Davidson understood that if Labour was softening its position on the Union, she need only harden and amplify hers. At this year’s Holyrood election, she presented herself not as an alternative first minister, but as the most forceful voice of opposition to Sturgeon. In the campaign debates, she demonstrated it. By doing so, she was able to convince enough pro-Union Labour voters to defect to achieve second place.

For someone who is still relatively new to politics, Davidson has well-tuned strategic instincts. When I asked Tomkins what she excels at, he said: “Her framework is politics, not policy as such. She is brilliant at tactics, messaging, strategy.”

Davidson seems to have developed a serious interest in politics only as an adult, and then only because she thought that it presented a worthy challenge for her abilities (by contrast, most of the leading Scottish Nationalists joined the SNP before they were 18). A little like David Cameron, she just thought that she would be good at it. When I asked her to name her political heroes, or politicians whom she particularly admired, she struggled to come up with any from real life, naming Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. She wasn’t being coy – it’s just that, like most people, she has never looked to politics for role models. With prompting, she eventually named Peter Mandelson, for his part in making the Labour Party electable again, and William Hague, for his work on women’s rights while foreign secretary.

This lack of political nerdery is part of what makes her able to connect so directly with voters, but it is also a limitation. A consistent criticism of Davidson, even among those who admire her, is that she is not interested in policy, or at least that she does not have a set of distinctive policy ideas. This isn’t quite fair – she has published a paper on education and successfully focused attention on the attainment gap between poor and middle-class students. But she has not yet committed to a detailed alternative (a school vouchers policy was raised and then quietly dropped). Other than “maintain the Union”, it is difficult to know what a Davidson-led government would do.

The word everyone uses about her is “authentic”; like Sturgeon, she projects comfort in her own skin. But in a sense Davidson is a lucky politician, as well as a precociously accomplished one. It is much easier to be yourself in politics when what you believe matches so neatly with what you need to do to win. Her decision to present herself in the Holyrood elections as an effective opponent, rather than an alternative first minister, was tactically smart, but it raised a larger question. As one observer put it to me, “We know what she’s against. But what is Ruth Davidson for?”

 

*****

On 12 July, the day after it became clear that Theresa May would be the new Conservative leader, Davidson spoke at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster and delivered what was, in essence, a stand-up comedy set. Even by her standards, it was indiscreet. On the difference between the Tories’ truncated leadership contest and Labour’s lengthy deliberation, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson.”

It is difficult to say it without sounding like a stick in the mud, but to me this routine felt misjudged. Political leaders can be funny but not that funny – not without compromising our sense of their stability. Nor was it wise to be so rude. Johnson is in the same party as she is, after all, and may yet become leader (nobody, possibly least of all Davidson, is sure what she would have done had Johnson succeeded Cameron). Like many funny people, Davidson metabolises anger into humour and I suspect that, after Brexit, her anger was surging.

It wasn’t just that she thought the decision was profoundly wrong, or that she was contemptuous of Leave’s tactics. It was also that she was being forced to rethink her future. If Remain had won, the chance of another independence referendum may well have receded, allowing Scottish politics to normalise. The SNP would have found it harder to present itself as being simultaneously in office and opposition. Davidson could have embarked on the last stage of the Scottish Tory recovery: making it an alternative government. She might even have considered the option of taking a Westminster seat – after which, who knows?

The vote in favour of Brexit knocked all of this on the head. It put independence firmly back on the agenda. Instead of either disappearing or becoming imminent, the prospect of a second referendum will squat in the middle distance of Scottish politics for years to come. In a sense, this is convenient for Davidson, because she will remain the strongest voice on one side of the only real issue in town. She can make further inroads into the heartlands of a Labour Party that, at a UK-wide level, is strangling itself to death, while picking up SNP voters who lose patience with Sturgeon when she blames every problem with the National Health Service or schools on London.

Theresa May is not nearly so good a bogeyman for Sturgeon as Cameron was. Davidson gets on well with her despite some stylistic differences. Both are observant Christians and care about their duties to the Tory flock. When May came to Scotland to meet Sturgeon in the week after she became Prime Minister, she also attended a meeting of local Conservative members, which Davidson greatly appreciated (Cameron wouldn’t have done such a thing). Davidson has not, as May has, marinated for years in local Tory association meetings but she takes her responsibility to the membership seriously, in the manner of a general concerned with the troops’ morale.

Yet a referendum that is always two years away is one that she can never win or lose. It is hard for her to come up with distinctive ideas when there is little point devoting effort to envisioning a policy agenda that will be distorted through the prism of independence. Given the odds that she overcame to take her party to where it is now, nobody should dismiss the chance that she might one day become first minister. But Scottish politics is defined by long periods of single-party hegemony and the SNP under Sturgeon may well have just started its turn.

Then there is the option of running for a (Scottish) seat in Westminster. Davidson says that she has no interest in swapping Edinburgh for London, either politically or personally, and I believe her. Yet there may come a point at which she is forced to confront the possibility that this is the only way to escape a career in permanent opposition. She might also come to see it as the best way to defend the Union. Sturgeon has suggested that there is no longer any such thing as British politics. What a rebuke it could be to that idea to have one of Scotland’s most popular politicians in the cabinet at Westminster, or, indeed, in 10 Downing Street (a possibility hardly less plausible than Davidson’s elevation to first minister). On the other hand, Davidson may leave politics altogether. She was strikingly keen to emphasise, in our interview, that at some point she will seek an entirely new challenge.

We like to think that the best politicians will somehow find their way to power – that talent will rise to its appropriate level. But Davidson has only two paths to high office open to her: becoming first minister, or quitting Edinburgh for Westminster. Both are exceedingly steep. If she cannot or will not take either, in decades to come she may be remembered as we now recall her performance at Wembley: a firework show, lighting up the landscape without changing it.

Ian Leslie’s “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” is published by Quercus. Twitter: @mrianleslie

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories