Ruth Davidson is a politician of firsts. She was the first to feature her same sex partner in a party television broadcast, back in 2015. She is the first gay politician to become pregnant and will be the first leader to take maternity leave when the baby is born later this year. And she has now, in a frank and moving interview with the Sunday Times, become the first to talk openly about her mental health problems, which in her teens led to a period of self-harming. Without making too much of a fuss, she appears to follow the mantra of “be the change”. That takes guts.
Liberal, practical, unimpressed by dogma and bullshit, swinging punches from the centre ground, it’s easy to see why she appeals to those of similar disposition who feel orphaned by the current modish rush to the fringes of left and right.
Come down to Westminster and save us from the monstrous ego of Boris, plead moderate Tories. Might you be interested in leading this new centrist party we’re sort-of fashioning, ask the mould-breakers. In my conversations with senior Scottish Nationalists there is something of a shudder whenever her name is mentioned – they are oddly reluctant to concede her talent, desperate to demonise her as “just another Tory”, quick to dismiss her chances. I think this is because they know she is both a genuine threat and an uncommon opponent, and they can’t work out how to handle her.
It’s not her policies that impress. Indeed, “what policies?” is a perfectly fair question. Davidson admits the Scottish Tories owe much of their unexpected renaissance to the events of 2014, the subsequent constitutional wobbling of Scottish Labour, and to her explicit pitch as the party of No. Her Tories are, she knows, a zippy and agile opposition but not yet an alternative government-in-waiting. She too is at her least sure-footed when it comes to matters of policy detail – once a journalist, and all that… – and a lot of work is going into fixing this in time for the all-important 2021 Scottish parliament election
No, what impresses is Davidson, the human being. Any Tory leader might have benefited from the independence referendum and its consequences, but not many could have turned that hot moment into sustained and sizeable renewal.
She gets around the “same old Tory” jibe because it’s so obviously and demonstrably untrue. She neither looks nor sounds nor lives like the stereotypical patrician kings of Conservatism past. She is an open book: self-deprecating and funny and sweary and sometimes fragile. Why did she undergo IVF rather than her younger partner? “Because I’m old! We thought we’d have a crack with me first, and if it didn’t work she was back-up.” She is nervous about parenthood – “I might be rubbish at it, I’ve never done it before” – and aware of the risks associated with returning to a demanding, high-pressure job when her maternity leave ends: “I worry that I’m the more remote of the two figures. And I think I worry that I’ll fall into the dad role rather than get to be the mum as well.”
Davidson is arguably the first authentically 21st-century politician to have made it into a leadership role. In her Sunday Times interview she describes how a spell of mental vulnerability in her late teens saw her start cutting herself – “arms and stomach” – with blades and broken glass, and drinking heavily. She still has the scars: “You get very good at covering things up, and you get very good at wearing long sleeves in summer and all that sort of thing.”
As anyone who has suffered depression or its associated conditions knows, you can never again unthinkingly trust the robustness of your mental health. This appears to be a key reason for Davidson’s insistence she has no intention of ever being considered for 10 Downing Street. “You have to want it. And I don’t want to be prime minister… I value my relationship and my mental health too much for it. I will not be a candidate.”
She will, however, be a candidate for the Scottish equivalent, Bute House, currently home to the formidable Nicola Sturgeon. Davidson is the only opposition politician with a chance of toppling the SNP leader from the pinnacle of government in 2021. But it’s a slim chance. Sturgeon and the SNP’s poll ratings remain high – unprecedentedly so for a party into its 11th year of power. The Scottish Tories must also wrestle with umbilical ties to an unpopular government at Westminster and a UK party that seems to have abandoned any pretence of unity or fraternity.
Much of the chatter in London has been about whether Davidson could be parachuted into Westminster in the next few years or even months. This was never feasible and shouldn’t have been taken seriously as an idea. The real debate has always been about the UK general election that follows the Holyrood vote in 2021. By then Davidson could be first minister. More likely, she will be someone who after a decade in the job has taken her party closer to power than anyone ever expected, but fell short. It’s then that she’s most likely to seek a fresh challenge. Will she look north or south, within politics or without? I suspect, with a baby on its way, even she doesn’t yet know the answer.
British politics has never had anyone quite like Ruth Davidson before. She has an ability to make things happen. And that, I rather think, is the point.