There is a six month window for Ruth Davidson’s successor to emerge

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives dominates her party. But in her temporary absence, will more talent emerge?

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Can you name a Scottish Tory? Well, yes, obviously her. What about another one, though? Not easy, is it, even for a New Statesman reader who’s likely to have a higher than average level of political geekiness. Michael Gove and Liam Fox have English seats and don’t count. Nor does Eleanor thingummy.

There was a time, back in the Thatcher/Major days, when formidable Scots holding Scottish seats were peppered throughout the cabinet: Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Forsyth, George Younger, Ian Lang. Those days ended with the wipeout of 1997. With no MPs, the party quickly decayed into an unloved relic. There was no money, no real public or media interest. The talent pool dried up. Young wannabes went elsewhere. All that was left was an elderly and declining membership that seemed wholly out of sympathy with the shiny modernity of New Labour and Cool Britannia. The Scottish Tories always seemed to be on the wrong side of the argument. They were, in short and sometimes literally, a joke.

The advent of Holyrood provided the kiss of life – Tory numbers in the new parliament were small, but there was a pulse. Under, first, the leadership of David McLetchie and then Annabel Goldie, the long, slow march back to credibility began. Then came the Days of Ruth.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact Ruth Davidson has had. Luck and timing and the independence referendum played their part, but Davidson’s charm, determination and intelligence have been just as important. She took her chance. With 31 MSPs, she has led her party to replace Labour as the official opposition in Edinburgh. In the last Westminster election, they went from one seat to 13, disposing of SNP bigwigs Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson in the process.

Could this have happened without Davidson? What would the party be like without her? These questions are sometimes posed. We may be about to get some kind of answer.

Davidson is pregnant and due to give birth in October. It’s expected she’ll take around six months’ maternity leave, which will, of course, leave a big, Ruth-shaped hole in the scenery for a while. If a week is a long time in politics, six months is practically an era, especially in these tumultuous times. It’s fair to say her backroom staff are worried about this, and are trying to figure out what to do about it.

Problem one is that Davidson’s stand-in at official moments such as First Minister’s Questions will be her deputy, Jackson Carlaw. The MSP for Eastwood used to run a Ford dealership and is nicknamed Car Lot by his detractors. He has been around the top of the Scottish Conservatives for decades, having first stood in a by-election in 1982. The modernisers around Davidson have little confidence that he has the skills or personality to keep the momentum going.

Problem two is that Davidson’s prominence has served to obscure the other talented individuals in her party. Her advisers freely admit they have focused as much public attention on her as possible, which is understandable given her star qualities. However, this means there’s no one with much name or face recognition standing by to fill the gap.

Despite this, it is, of course, an opportunity. The benefit of the party’s recent momentum is that it has started to attract the kind of people worth having again. Success breeds success, and some of the more impressive people in Scottish politics once more wear the blue rosette. They will have the chance now to prove their mettle.

Indeed, the period could be seen as a dry run for a future leadership contest. Davidson has been in her post since 2011, and by the time of the next Holyrood election, in 2021, it will have been a decade. Either Davidson will become first minister, which is still unlikely, or she is likely to seek a new challenge, perhaps at Westminster. One of the bright youngish things currently on the backbenches in London or Edinburgh will replace her.

Davidson has told friends she knows who she favours as her successor, and has known for some time (though she refuses to give a name). It’s likely to be one of the following, of whom we should hear a lot more in coming years. 

Adam Tomkins MSP: a law professor at Glasgow University, Tompkins is a serious intellect. He holds the shadow brief covering a ragbag of issues, including communities, social security, the constitution and equalities.

Miles Briggs MSP: the 35-year-old MSP for Lothian covers mental and public health; he is a social liberal. One source adds: “Miles needs to learn that he can’t keep proposing to spend money on things until he’s found an acceptable way to raise it.”

Douglas Ross MP: unseated the SNP’s highly-regarded Westminster leader Angus Robertson in 2017. Ross is a football referee and got into trouble after it emerged he would miss a crucial Commons vote to run the line in a Champions League match at the Camp Nou. “Tough as teak,” says a source. “ A bit to the right of Ruth on most things, but thoughtful and nuanced.”

Kirstene Hair, MP: at 28, the baby of the bunch. She has impressed by going after Theresa May’s government on securing seasonal workers’ visas for the farming areas of her Angus constituency. Party bosses are also taken with her local campaigning skills.

Paul Masterton MP: making a name for himself at Westminster by standing up to the government over Brexit, which saw him named and pictured as one of the Tory “mutineers” on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. Only 32, but has a growing fan club, and is close to the sensibles on the Tory backbenches such as Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer.

“We have deliberately focused on Ruth to the exclusion of the others. At the moment, no one could pick the rest out of a line-up,” says a senior party source. “This is a chance for ambitious people to step up and show we are more than a one-woman band.”

The confidence and ambition is evident to anyone who visits the Tory floor at Holyrood. “These guys want to be ministers and get things done,” says the source. “We advertised recently for a relatively lowly researcher post and got dozens and dozens of applications. Why wouldn’t we? You get the chance to work for Ruth Davidson. If you’re an ambitious young centrist it’s a no-brainer.”

Proof of success will come if, when Davidson returns to the saddle post-baby, the question “can you name a Scottish Tory’ is readily met with multiple answers.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).