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24 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 2:02pm

Ruth Davidson finished the EU referendum a star – then she lost her greatest ally

The Leave victory could pit Ruth Davidson against another popular figure. 

By Kenny macaskill

In Scotland, amidst the gloom of the Remain campaign, two stars kept on shining.

First, there was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She showed she can confidently walk on a UK stage and, through her leadership, was pivotal in ensuring that all of Scotland’s areas voted to remain. This is a not inconsiderable achievement given historic antipathy over the demise of the fishing fleet and heavy industry. As relationships across the UK enter a turbulent period, she’ll continue to grow in assuredness.   

Second, though, was the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. She entered the Remain campaign with gusto. This followed on from her success in the Scottish elections, where she took the Tories from being a marginal force into being the principal opposition. Much of that success was due to the Labour collapse. The 22 per cent Tory share of the vote was still less than the 25 per cent they polled in 1992. However, perception is as important as reality in politics. She won a constituency seat from the SNP, led her campaign from the front and showed herself as a redoubtable campaigner. She came out visibly strengthened and a key player in Scottish politics. 

In the referendum, she again campaigned vigorously and her reputation came out enhanced. Her close personal relationship with David Cameron was no doubt a factor. But, it saw her more than hold her own in a Referendum debate with Boris Johnson. Indeed, she was highly critical of both him and the line he was taking. Given the result of the referendum and who may be the next Prime Minister, that could be highly relevant.

Ruth Davidson’s growing stature introduces two interesting dynamics. One is within Scottish politics and the other within the Scottish Tory Party itself.

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Within Scottish politics, the old cosy consensus of social democratic parties divided by the constitution is over. While the referendum result means the constitution remains at the fore in Scotland, a home front is now opening for the Scottish Government. The days of SNP and Labour squabbling over who opposes the Tories the most is over. Now the Conservative Party is the Opposition in Scotland, albeit a Tory Lite version. Davidson has eschewed the excesses of the London party and taken a more moderate line on social and economic issues.

The challenges for the Scottish Government to deliver on public services and universal provision will be significant. As austerity continues to bite, the Opposition call will be to reduce not protect. The Tory call will be to target, not be universal. Measures such as free prescriptions and no student fees will come under pressure. No doubt other previous sacred cowswill follow, as an emboldened Scottish Tory Party finds its voice across the Holyrood chamber. It’ll be harder to portray the fight as Scotland versus Westminster when its coming from within.

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Moreover, within the Scottish Tory Party, Davidson finds herself in a dominant position. The Out campaign was primarily mavericks and old duffers like Lord Michael Forsyth. It represented the past, not the present, of the new Tory party in Scotland.

However, Davidson was close to Cameron, even though positioned herself more moderately. Not only has she lost an ally, but a lurch to the right will endanger her hardwon gains. During the campaign, Davidson denied a story that a separate Scottish Conservative Party would happen if Johnson became leader. Opposing it, after all got her the post. However, it’s an idea that’s been gaining traction. 

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.