It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call it the Strictly Come Dancing Pact, but when Ruth Davidson and Andy Burnham met at a filming of the primetime TV show in Blackpool late last year it proved something of a meeting of minds.
Depending on your view of how British politics and the Union will develop in the coming years, people like Davidson and Burnham are either central or peripheral figures. I favour the former view: a feisty regionalism will become more and more the template for how our nation conducts its internal business, whether that be Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London or wherever else a strong local polity is emerging.
Both agreed they had found themselves in the right place at the right time: ie, not at Westminster during the tortured, all-consuming era of Brexit. Away from the blinding glare of that single, dominant issue, they were able to focus on making a difference in other, more immediate and rewarding areas. Both were thankful to be plying their trade 500 and 300 miles respectively from the mania and extremes suddenly prominent on both sides of the Commons chamber. And, I understand, they detected and appreciated the A-grade political cunning in one another.
This desire of senior, gifted people to be absent from the traditional cockpit of the nation at a time of national crisis is not something you’d have heard a few years ago. But British politics is shifting. As power is devolved, those with an interest in holding it are finding the newly opened tributaries worth exploring. They are finding, too, that the tail can wag the dog – that Westminster’s weakness and the abject condition of the major parties is their opportunity.
While Davidson is usually no fan of the Foreign Secretary, as she sets her strategy for 2018 and beyond, she is nevertheless looking closely at how Boris Johnson used his tenure as Mayor of London – what he lacked in formal power he made up for through deft use of the bully pulpit. Johnson picked his moments to intervene on the national stage. He publicly disagreed with David Cameron and George Osborne on keystone issues in order to endear himself to his liberal London electorate. He had all the benefits of a big profile with none of the burdens of a great office of state. He was, of course, able to use the period to finesse the trajectory of his re-entry to the Westminster wacky races. With Davidson admitting before Christmas that she might arrive at Westminster in 2022, if not before, it’s little wonder she’s studying the models.
But there’s more to it than that. The Scottish Tories need to make a big noise over the next few years. Before the 2021 devolved election they must show they have an interior intellectual life that is distinct from the tired inanities coming out of London. They must repay the decision of the Scottish electorate to send 13 of them south in June’s general election, an outcome that would have been unthinkable only a few short years ago. Is it better to have a horde of aggressive, oppositional Scottish National Party members scrapping for Scotland’s share at Westminster, or a battalion of Tories that can more easily extract generous deals from Whitehall? In short, Davidson must show she can bring home the bacon when it’s being handed out. As a source close to her says, “if there are portions of pork, she wants her slice”.
She has already shown her hand, speaking out against a special Brexit deal for Northern Ireland when Theresa May proposed one. This week, she threw her weight behind the removal of foreign students from the immigration figures, a step the Prime Minister has previously fiercely resisted. The 13 Scottish Tory MPs know their success is due to Davidson’s personal popularity, and owe her their loyalty. She isn’t above exploiting this to push a more liberal Conservative view in the chamber – like her, 10 of the 13 were remainers. In John Lamont, the MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, the group even has its own informal whip. She has been known to call this strategy of influence “the nudge unit”. “Her view is that if you have political capital, you might as well use it,” said the source.
There’s a refreshing frankness to the party’s self-analysis. “We know that people think we don’t have a brain in our heads,” the source continued. “We know we’re seen as a one-trick party. We have to show there’s more to us than defending the Union. That we’re not just the Ruth Davidson party. There’s a lot of policy work going on.” A healthcare commission, comprising experts from across the NHS, is due to report this year and will form the basis of an ambitious attempt to win Tory credibility in that sphere. Davidson is keen to put some clear policy water between the Scottish party and the unpopular Westminster health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and in other areas too. “By the time 2021 comes around, there will be a degree of differentiation from the south,” said the source. This is getting easier to sell to her English colleagues at Westminster, who have grown more comfortable with and accepting of regionalisation after a few years watching the SNP’s muscular performance at Westminster, and through projects in their own constituencies such as the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine.
There is a straightforward view about the most likely outcome in the 2021 Holyrood election. “We realise it’s unlikely we are going to win some fantastic victory. But the most likely outcome is that there won’t be a hair between the three main parties. When Alex Salmond edged it by one seat in 2007 he was able to proclaim victory, so we want to maximise our chances in a tight race.”
The fact that Scotland has a clear run till then, with no scheduled elections or referendums, provides a rare opportunity to go hard at the nuts and bolts of policy. “We want to look at the parts of devolution where Scotland has fallen down,” says an insider. “We will look at health and educational outcomes, which haven’t got better in the past 20 years. The powers that are there haven’t been used because it’s always been about political calculation or the constitution. We want to take a 10-15 year view about what we’d do if we were in charge. We don’t have to play the left/right game, because there’s massive leeway on the centre ground.”
A looser Union, in the form of intellectual independence and differentiation, greater devolution of power, plus the developing habit of regional politicians kicking back against the centre, and often winning, will, I believe, come to be a defining feature of modern British politics. After all, if you got into a fight with Ruth Davidson, wouldn’t you expect to lose?