There is now a Ruth Davidson-shaped hole in Scottish – and British – politics. Its full import is as yet unknowable and will only become clear in the months and years ahead. But it’s not overstating things to say that the Union feels in a more precarious position today.
The Scottish Conservative comeback, which has provided the SNP with its only real challenge in recent years, may well stall. The United Kingdom has lost its most compelling and prominent frontline advocate north of the border. A last remaining flame of liberal Conservatism – she has always aligned her politics with those of John Major, though some of us also saw the astute real-world instincts of Tony Blair – has been snuffed out.
Why has she walked? Why has this grittiest of individuals, who led from the front during the independence and Brexit referendums, and emerged with the scars to prove it, still smiling, who is still only 40, departed the stage?
First, we should take her at her word. As a new mother, recently returned from six months’ maternity leave, the relentless demands of her role offered a very different challenge. Every new parent knows the inner rewiring that comes with the birth of a child, the resettling of priorities and the fresh emotional imperatives. And her job was not like other jobs – highly public, always-on, rarely less than confrontational, mercilessly demanding of time, focus, judgement. She could no longer give – no longer wanted to give – all of herself to it. When she said today that she looked “with dread” on the prospect of spending hundreds of hours apart from her partner Jen and son Finn in the looming general election campaign and then the devolved election, she was undoubtedly speaking the truth.
But the political realities, which in her resignation statement were left largely unaddressed, must also be recognised. Davidson has had a hell of a time since the Brexit vote in 2016. A Remainer, she nevertheless rode in behind the result, but was then forced to watch aghast as her party at Westminster descended into civil war. She remained loyal to Theresa May until the end, attempting to keep the Scottish resurgence afloat in the most treacherous of waters. When May went under she gave her support to a shifting palette of candidates to replace her as prime minister, but, tellingly, never to Boris Johnson, for whose character and self-absorption she had little time and not a little contempt. Johnson won, surrounded himself with loyalist hardliners – including, against Davidson’s advice, a new Scottish secretary (her ally David Mundell was sacked) – and bullishly set out to deliver Brexit, regardless of the cost.
Davidson found her voice and influence diminished – had she been in the UK cabinet, the new Prime Minister would undoubtedly have sacked her. She became something of a ghost figure in Scottish politics, less often seen and heard. Her plans and calculations ahead of the 2021 devolved election, in which she had hoped to challenge Nicola Sturgeon for the position of First Minister, no longer made sense. Rather than holding an ageing, tiring nationalist administration to account, she would instead spend the next few years on the run, defending the indefensible, on the backfoot, making excuses for London, trying to live with herself, trying daily to square the circle.
It was telling that, even at the death, she refused to turn her gun on Johnson and his government. Loyalty – to the Union and the party – has been a hallmark of her leadership. Even when pressed in recent years to pursue a separate path to the UK Conservatives, to speak out and criticise the London party for the sake of enhanced credibility in a very different Scottish climate, to show greater autonomy from the UK machine, she always seemed reluctant. It was in her bones.
Nicola Sturgeon will have a spring in her step. There is talent in the party at Holyrood, but no one of similar stature ready to step into Davidson’s shoes – it would be much the same for the SNP were the First Minister suddenly to quit. It remains to be seen how deep the roots of her liberal agenda have gone – will the Scottish party, which is largely pro-Brexit, now choose a leader more in tune with Johnson? How will that play with the wider Scottish electorate, which Davidson has so assiduously courted?
In the end, it is the Union that may feel the sting most. Davidson is a proper star, of the kind that are all too rare in politics: charismatic, a gifted communicator who speaks fluent human, witty, brave and with real grit. She put pep in the Unionist cause, and was a standard bearer who people were comfortable rallying around. There is no obvious figure in any party to take her place. The Johnson government and the English party seem largely unconcerned with maintaining the UK in its current form.
On reflection, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Davidson, in the end, felt much like Geoffrey Howe: sent to the crease only to find that, before the first ball is bowled, her bat has been broken by the team captain. The tragic conflict of loyalties, both personal and political, became unsustainable