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23 March 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 3:14pm

How Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon are swapping roles

The Scottish Tories are taking a spikier and more independent approach just as the SNP shows signs of a new, constructive maturity.

By Chris Deerin

Who gets the best deal for Scotland at Westminster? Is it Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, which has made a nuisance of itself since its parliamentary numbers soared in 2015? Or is it Ruth Davidson’s rejuvenated Scottish Conservatives, to whom No 10 is said to be an open door?

The two parties are polar opposites on many things – the constitution, public services, and tax and spend. But both insist they are best placed to fight Scotland’s corner in London, to win deals and compromises from Theresa May’s government, and to ensure northern Britain’s interests aren’t forgotten amid the chaos of Brexit.

The recent row over the fate of the UK’s fishing industry – largely a Scottish concern – has been an interesting test. Davidson’s 13 Westminster MPs – and they are very much hers – were furious when it emerged the EU would continue to set fish quotas during the planned Brexit transition period (from March 2019 until December 2020). It was an embarrassment for Davidson, who had issued a joint statement with UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove just a week before, saying: “The Prime Minister has been clear: Britain will leave the CFP [Common Fisheries Policy] as of March 2019. We both support her wholeheartedly.” Moray MP Douglas Ross luridly described the arrangement as “a pint of cold sick.” The Scottish contingent says it will vote against any final Brexit deal that fails to take back full control of the UK’s waters.

Sturgeon was outraged, too. “This is shaping up to be a massive sellout of the Scottish fishing industry by the Tories,” she tweeted. “The promises that were made to them during #EUref and since are already being broken – as many of us warned they would be.”

There is some chutzpah here. Neither Davidson nor Sturgeon wants to leave the EU, so siding with the ultra-Leavers of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation takes a bit of a brass neck. But such is politics, and the battle for votes in the areas where fishing matters is a close one between the SNP and the Tories.

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And while the transitional decision can be seen as a rebuff to Scotland – a signal that, in the end, it has little real influence in London’s corridors of power – it nevertheless provides a good example of the game being fought between Sturgeon and Davidson. Is it better for Scotland to be represented by a party that is antagonistic towards the UK government and seeks to win concessions through threats and attrition, or by one that is ostensibly on the same side and can extract deals through goodwill, co-operation and shared interest? Both are determined to show the electorate that their way is best.

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When it comes to Brexit, the SNP sit across the negotiating table from UK ministers – Deputy First Minister John Swinney meets with Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, Sturgeon has one-on-one meetings with May herself. The Nats continue to warn that the Scottish Parliament (where, with the always-supplicant Greens, it has a majority) could vote against the final Brexit bill, which would create a constitutional crisis with unknowable consequences.

Davidson is, inevitably, less oppositional towards a Tory administration, but isn’t above flexing her muscles – what her aides call “Unionist nationalism”. After a long, fallow electoral period, Scotland returned 13 Tory MPs to Westminster at the last general election, due in no small part to Davidson’s personal popularity. May’s minority government needs those 13 votes to pass its legislation, and so far the MPs seem willing to do whatever their Scottish leader tells them to do. Like her, they are largely on the party’s liberal wing and anti-Brexit. Davidson wants to use her leverage to extract goodies for Scotland whenever possible, and to be seen to be doing so. The British government wants the Scottish party’s Lazarus-like recovery to continue and therefore seems willing to play ball when and where it can.

Scotland, therefore, has two very different champions fighting its corner, using a mix of carrot and stick. Interestingly, however, we have started to see the Scottish Tories take a slightly spikier and more independent approach towards May’s government, just as the SNP shows signs of a new, constructive maturity.

Davidson knows that securing goodies from May is important, but that it’s equally important she avoids being seen as London’s patsy. She has hopes that her party will become the largest at the next devolved election in 2021, and that she could become First Minister, but that requires her to demonstrate independence as well as influence. She and her advisers will deliberately create some substantial breaches with the UK party over the next few years. Davidson is already openly antagonistic towards Boris Johnson and has little time for the hardline Brexiteers on the backbenches – important in a Scotland that voted 62 per cent to Remain.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon seems to have decided that the best route to holding and winning a second independence referendum is for her party to be seen to have grown up. She largely avoids the stunts and boorish sniping that defined the Salmond years, and instead maintains a stance of dignified leadership and stateswoman-like reasonableness.

Her MPs at Westminster have become increasingly active participants in debates around social and economic policy as it affects the whole of the UK, and not just Scotland. The Nats have moved from being a one-dimensional entity towards becoming a social democratic party with an undeniably broad programme and deep policy base. The calculation is that the bits of Scotland Salmond’s swaggering style was unable to win over will only vote for separation if it can see evidence of competence and seriousness and significantly less of the whinging and Westminster-blaming.

With these two formidable women set on proving they represent the better option, and with so much at stake over the next few years, there is, one way or another, likely to be a steady flow of pork across the border.