Tartan Tories strike back

The Conservatives hold just one seat for Scotland in Westminster, but starting with the help of a 26

Outside the office of Peter Lyburn, Conservative candidate for Perth and North Perthshire, is a tiny private aircraft, visible from his desk in the Scottish spring sunshine. Given the geography of this vast, rural constituency - which stretches from the town of Perth, 40 miles north of Edinburgh, across swaths of agricultural land and up to the Highlands - an aeroplane might not be a bad way to get to some voters. But when Lyburn appears outside the office - a couple of rooms in the control tower of Perth's small, non-commercial airport - it is in something less ostentatious.

His saloon car parked outside, the 26-year-old candidate for the Tories' most winnable seat in Scotland bounds into the room, eating an ice cream. He is confident of his chances of winning the seat, which the SNP holds by a margin of just 1,521 votes. He and his team started their campaign early - 18 months ago, he explains - and these busy final days are being run "almost like a military operation". Today's schedule includes a visit to a Perth care home to meet Andrew Lansley, who is in Scotland for the day. "We don't want to keep the shadow health secretary waiting," Lyburn says as we head for the car. But once we arrive in town, without a map, we can't find the right street. We decide to walk, but the elderly couple we ask for directions don't know either. When, with the help of an iPhone and Google Maps, we finally work out where to go, it's so far away that we have to return to the car and drive.

Unusually young and competing for a pro­minent marginal seat, Lyburn has attracted more attention than the average candidate. But then in most Scottish constituencies, Conservative candidates don't come in for scrutiny at all: what would be the point? At Westminster, Labour has by far the most Scottish seats; the popularity of both the party and its Fife-born leader is holding up. The SNP leads Scotland's minority government at Holyrood, and presents its Westminster candidates as a necessary buffer to protect Scottish interests from "the London parties". This argument has kept it in second place in the opinion polls, though lagging far behind Labour, to which the Nationalists tend to lose support in Westminster elections. As a result, the battles being fought in SNP-Labour marginals, such as the seat bordering Lyburn's, Ochil and South Perth­shire, have become even tougher.

The Conservatives have only one Scottish MP, David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; David Cameron has conceded that most Tories north of the border have little or no chance of being elected. In some seats, they are fourth, or even fifth, in line. But as polling day draws nearer, and the widely predicted Conservative majority starts to look less and less inevitable, every marginal is becoming more important to the Tories, even in Scotland. The area that now comprises the Perth and North Perthshire seat has a long history of supporting the Conservatives: it has been SNP-held since 1995, but for almost all of the 20th century, it returned a Tory MP.

The half-decade Cameron has spent deodorising the Conservatives has had little impact in Scotland: the proportion of Scots willing to vote Tory has stuck resolutely at between 15 and 20 per cent since 2005. "Partly, it's because [the Conservatives] no longer have a strong hold in Scottish politics," explains Nicola McEwen, co-director of Edinburgh University's Institute of Governance. "If there is apathy towards Labour, ordisappointment, it's not going to benefit the Conservatives - it's going to go elsewhere, mainly. But also, one of the issues that is quite important for Scottish voters is which party can best represent them in the UK. And the Conservatives seem not to be able to do that."

Check mate

However, at this general election, for the first time since 1992, it looks as if the Tories might return more than one Scottish seat. That's not to say there has been a significant shift in Scottish politics. Nobody expects the party to win the 11 seats it has set its sights on; Peter Kellner, of the polling organisation YouGov, is more generous than most in suggesting that the Tories might feasibly add seven seats to their existing one, but points out that "gains of one or two are more likely".

Cameron himself is yet to make headway with most Scots, McEwen says. "I don't think he gets the same reaction as Margaret Thatcher, for instance, but there's no sign that he is especially popular, or turning things around for Scotland."

There is one significant change. In Scotland before 2005, not even Conservatives liked the Conservatives: the Scottish party worked hard under its leader David McLetchie to develop a moderate, "One Nation" identity at Holyrood that was distinct from Michael Howard's British Conservatives. With Cameron in charge, that divide has disappeared. "They're much more comfortable with the 'compassionate Conservative' identity being nurtured just now," McEwen says.

Lyburn is the perfect example of a Scot "energised in the party by David Cameron". He is such a textbook Cameroon, he could have been generated in a lab somewhere deep inside CCHQ. "We need to focus on the bottom 10 per cent of society," he tells me. "David Cameron calls it progressive ends by conservative means, and I agree with him 110 per cent."

He's a local candidate, having grown up on a farm outside nearby Coupar Angus, and has the requisite green credentials, after three years working for a recycling firm owned by the Scottish multimillionaire entrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Indeed, on his first foray into politics as the Scottish parliamentary candidate for Dunfermline West in 2007, Tatler magazine tipped him as a future environment secretary - as well as "top Tory totty". "He looks like a Conservative candidate," remarks the Scottish political commentator David Torrance. "He's got this mass of very Tory hair."

Lyburn is trying to sell the notion of a refreshed Conservative Party, with new candidates like himself. "What we're trying to get across to people is -look at our list of 11 seats. If you're in one of them, don't think you're the only person in your street who thinks the way you do," he says. Yet he denies there is any stigma attached to voting Tory in Scotland.

Lyburn tells me that his previous political campaign in Dunfermline shook the "stereotypical Tory boy" out of him. But at a public meeting that evening in the village of Scone, he tells a polite and attentive gathering of 25 or so that "there is a real and present danger of young people growing up without a 'get out and work' attitude". He relates his own experiences: if his dad hadn't got him up in the mornings to help out around the farm, he would have stayed in bed. Apparently this is the sort of discipline broken Britain needs.

Lyburn is hoping that Scots will respect the "grown-up politics" of Budget rebalancing - including significant cuts to the public sector, which employs a quarter of Scotland's workforce. He may be right, in a sense: despite Alistair Darling's Budget announcement that spending in Scotland is to fall by £400m, 60 per cent of the country's voters still back a Labour government. But the SNP is targeting both the Tories and Labour with one line: "More Nats means less cuts."

Perth's SNP MP, Pete Wishart, is presenting an even less complicated message on the doorstep. Dressed in a coat with a faint check - Black Watch, the regiment founded in the area and reduced to battalion status by Labour, with Conservative support - he tells people repeatedly: "It's us or the Tories in this constituency." Several respond: "Anybody but the Tories."

In this part of the town, there is support for just about everyone else. A few say they're SNP voters; about as many seem unlikely to vote at all. A middle-aged Labour supporter, recently made redundant by Network Rail, agrees to think about the SNP as a tactical anti-Tory vote, while another of about the same age, a builder, is agitated about Perth's Polish population. But it is the BNP's world-view, not the Conservatives' promised cap on immigration, that has caught his eye. "They aren't right on everything, but they've got the right idea on some things. Haven't they?"

Wishart may be working to keep the Conservatives out of his constituency, but he says the SNP's ultimate goal, independence for Scotland, would be served well by a Tory government in Westminster. "It would be an absolute disaster for Scotland," he says, but "this provides other opportunities and contexts. There is a big constitutional question for David Cameron if he is returned as prime minister with only a few MPs for Scotland. [But] I'm not bothered if Brown or Cameron wins. I want Perthshire to win, that's my agenda."

Like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP argues that the two main parties are the same: "They're both committed to cutting Scotland's budget."

Officially, the SNP could hardly be seen to support a Conservative government at Westminster. During general elections, independence takes a back seat, and it would be perverse for the Nationalists to campaign as Scotland's "local champions" while backing a party with so little Scottish support, especially now that Cameron has ruled out the possibility of negotiating with the SNP in return for support in a hung parliament. But a Labour win - or even a good return - may have grave consequences for the SNP. There will be a Scottish parliamentary election next year, and a positive general election for Labour, which has just one seat fewer than the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, should lead to a boost at Holyrood.

Dodging left and right

A hung parliament, meanwhile, would allow the SNP to "Scotland-proof any piece of legislation", as Wishart puts it. But while the SNP is popular - more so than it was in 2005 - it looks unlikely to add many, if any, seats to its present haul of seven. Appealing to the anti-Tory vote is the more obvious route to popularity.

The same tactic is in use in neighbouring Ochil and South Perthshire, another large, rural constituency. But here - a seat that Labour holds by a mere 688 votes, and that the SNP considers to be its top target - it's not the Nationalists who are using it but the incumbents, who are fighting their campaign on a UK platform.

However, the SNP's Annabelle Ewing is out fighting her own negative campaign. In the streets of central Alloa, which have been thrown into chaos by a major redevelopment project, her focus is the failures of the local Labour council, which has fallen £9m into debt. Swaddled in an enormous yellow overcoat, Ewing is a consummate politician - perhaps unsurprisingly: she is the daughter of the former SNP president Winnie Ewing, and her brother is an MSP.

As we stroll through the Continental food market in the town high street, Ewing stops to speak only to shoppers, not stallholders, most of whom are from outside the constituency, so "they're not voters".

What she has to say plays, mostly, very well. Closures of public toilets and local halls have angered residents, and many of them are quite prepared to leave the blame where Ewing lays it, at Labour's door, although one elderly lady interjects "and the SNP at Holyrood". A passer-by in a baseball cap with a Scottish flag on it tells Ewing that he doesn't believe in independence: it's not the English he's worried about, it's "the Arabs and the Yanks". But he speaks warmly about George Reid, a former SNP MP and MSP for the area, and as he walks off he tells her: "Aye, I'll vote for you. That's not a problem."

Ewing emphasises the SNP's support for business and its rejection of Labour's planned National Insurance increase - "another burden that small business, in particular, does not need". The SNP has long stressed it is the party of Scottish enterprise, although its leader Alex Salmond, once an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, has had to abandon his vision of Scotland as part of an "arc of prosperity" stretching from Ireland to Iceland. In this constituency particularly, it may be a canny card to play. Like Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil includes a large pocket of Tory voters, who may choose to vote tactically for the SNP to keep the Labour incumbent, Gordon Banks, from holding on to the seat. Asked about the party's ideological positioning, Ewing dodges the question of left or right: she is concerned only with "protecting Scotland's interests".

Promises, promises

Meanwhile, Banks is taking an approach oddly reminiscent of Pete Wishart's. "I don't care what the SNP do, I don't care what the Tories do," the MP says. "What concerns me is my tactics." And those are ultra-local. In keeping with most of Labour's national pledges, he is offering his constituents more of what he has given them so far: he promises to be "as open and available as I have been over the last five years", pointing out that he maintains two constituency offices - one in Alloa, one in Crieff - to make things easy for them.

An unscientific sample of voters in nearby Clackmannan, a historically Labour-supporting area of the seat, suggests it may not be enough. Surrounded by a team of canvassers in bright red Scottish Labour cagoules, Banks makes an argument that is the same as the SNP's in Perth: can you stand to see the Tories win?

A woman on her way out into the evening sunshine tells him that "Labour have let me down so far" - on housing, on immigration - and adds, "I've written to yourself." Banks talks to her at length about her worries, then reminds her that a vote for the SNP is an open back door for the Tories. "I didn't like what they did under Maggie," she concedes.

As we walk on, Banks explains that this argument is not what it was. A woman in a football shirt takes one look at Banks and tells him she won't be voting - she is "not very impressed generally" by politicians. One campaigner approaches to say that they've just met a Tory. "Not a very nice one," he adds glumly, shifting the shoulder bag of leaflets resting against his hip. Tory voters, Banks remarks with resignation, "are no longer reluctant to tell you so".

But perhaps there is a positive side to this for Labour. With the peculiarities of Scottish politics, it is possible - just - that the tiny uptick in the Tories' Scottish reputation could work in Banks's favour. The Conservatives are now claiming to have the backing of 50 Scottish companies and business leaders over National Insurance - including that of Lyburn's former boss Angus MacDonald. If the Scottish Tories recast themselves as the party of Scottish business, the Conservative candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire may drain away a few of Ewing's votes. And if that happens, Gordon Brown may just find himself with one seat to thank David Cameron for.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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