Two images of Ruth Davidson from the past weeks linger in the mind. The first is of the Scottish Tory leader and her talented chief strategist, Eddie Barnes, striding along Downing Street towards No 10.
Davidson barely reaches Barnes’s shoulder and tips forward as she walks, probably a result of having broken her back some years ago. (She has, she admits, a cavalier approach to her personal safety – as well as her back, she has broken a foot, a leg and her pelvis, cracked two ribs and suffered a hairline fracture to her collarbone, variously by running into a bannister, getting knocked down by a truck, jumping through a window frame and falling off a horse.)
Though she is but little, she is fierce. The reckless physical determination that has left her battered body resembling that of a veteran stuntwoman is matched by a formidable mental grit. Squat, hunched, stubborn, with a twinkle never far from her eye: the word that springs to mind is “Churchillian”.
The second image comes from shortly afterwards. Davidson has arrived at No 10 to attend a meeting of the “political” cabinet. She is perched on the frozen eastern reaches of a long table, between David Mundell and Priti Patel, peering around as if benefiting from Take Your Child to Work Day. The centre of the table is hogged by some of the UK’s least popular politicians: Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, a smirking Boris Johnson and, yes, the zombie queen, Theresa May. An ancien régime, teetering.
There are, of course, many obstacles to Davidson ever occupying the only chair in the cabinet room to have arms, but character is not one of them. She has denied harbouring ambitions for the top job – haven’t they all? – because she and her fiancée, Jen, would like to have children.
But I do not use the Churchill comparison lightly. Having gone from one Westminster seat to 13, the Scottish Tories’ best result since 1983, having felled the big Nationalist beasts Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, she was the one winner in a room of losers. Why shouldn’t she lead this mob?
If the election’s missing manifesto was that of a liberal, centrist party and the missing candidate was an Emmanuel Macron, then arguably the Scottish Conservatives came closest to providing both. As the cabinet has circled the wagons against the EU, as the prospect of a “hard” Brexit has become ever more likely, as May has raised the spectre of grammar schools and fox hunting and gone haring after Ukip voters and now the DUP, Davidson has had none of it.
One close ally says, “Ruth sees the fight of the future not between left and right but between open and closed – and she’s a cheerleader for open. Even where people feel like they’re left behind by globalisation, she doesn’t think the answers are barriers and interventionism. She also thinks that if the Tories ever again go to the electorate as a crouching facsimile of Ukip to capture the worried or bitter over-55s, our party dies.”
The aide points to the election data. “Look at the figures: not just 18-to-25s, but the 25-to-40s, BME and metropolitan vote all collapsed. Ruth doesn’t want us to just be a moderating force on the wilder excesses of the ‘nasty party’ stuff. She wants us to bang the drum for liberal unionism.”
What does that mean? It means supporting foreign aid, free trade, student visas and even humanitarian interventionism, all of which she sees as opening the world, rather than closing it. “She is philosophically a Tory version of Tony Blair,” says her ally.
This is a political era in which the unthinkable keeps happening, from the Brexit vote to the rise of Donald Trump and Corbyn. Perhaps the growing number of “Stop Boris” campaigners will find a way to jemmy Davidson into Westminster in the coming months. Perhaps she’ll be prime minister by the autumn. But I think it unlikely.
What she achieved in the general election has slightly masked the scale of her success and the opportunity she now has at Holyrood. Since the devolved election of 2016, the Scottish Tories have had 31 seats out of the 129 total: they have supplanted Labour as the largest opposition party. However, under the dual voting system, only seven of these were first-past-the-post – the remaining 24 came from the regional list. With the next Holyrood election due in 2021, with Nicola Sturgeon wounded and the SNP seemingly in decline, and with those constituencies that have turned Tory at Westminster firmly in her sights, Davidson is intent on seeing her party’s resurrection through.
As for Westminster, Davidson will be present in spirit if not in person. She now has 13 MPs who owe her their success and therefore their loyalty. She is not bound by collective responsibility, and it will undoubtedly suit her from time to time to put clear blue water between the Scottish and UK Tories.
The general election result, in which the SNP’s haul fell from a nominal 56 out of 59 seats to a relatively low 35, has pushed a second independence referendum back beyond the horizon. Though, in a sense, this gives the Tories a problem, in that they have benefited from being the repository of anti-referendum votes, it nevertheless allows Davidson to pursue a domestic agenda that displays her liberal credentials to the fullest and also to prosecute the Nationalist government over its failure to reform the public services.
On education and health, she will seek to be the consumer’s champion where Sturgeon seems stuck on defending the producer’s interest. With Holyrood now in control of income tax and elements of welfare, the SNP’s blaming of Westminster for all the evils of modern Scotland will surely begin to wear thin. Four years of hammering away at all this could produce one of those unthinkable outcomes.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel