The Scottish Conservatives must now prove they are more than a talented centre-forward

Ruth Davidson’s maternity leave speaks to a Tory fear: that without her, the Scottish party would be nowhere. 

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“Maradona, and ten others”. That’s the description that Carlos Bilardo famously gave of his 1986 World Cup-winning Argentinian team. Whether fair or not, Argentina reached two World Cup Finals with Diego Maradona and took 28 years to reach another, which they lost. 

Optimistic opponents of the Scottish Conservatives believe that the party has a similar problem: outside their charismatic leader, Ruth Davidson, they don’t have the depth of talent necessary to present a prolonged challenge to their rivals.

Davidson, who has announced that she is expecting her first child, is undoubtedly a talented politician and a great asset for the Scottish Conservatives. Voting behaviour across the democratic world seems to be shifting, with the parties of the left doing increasingly well among voters who live in high diversity and low income areas and high diversity and high income areas, and the parties of the right doing increasingly well in low diversity and high income areas, and low diversity and low income areas.

One of the things that immediately struck Davidson’s advisors at Populus, the polling company that has long been affiliated with centrist Tories, was that voters from all four quadrants responded very positively to her. And although there are a number of Conservative politicians at the start of their careers who I can plausibly see might one day be able to do the same, there is no other front-rank Tory who can.

Although I find it hard to see the process whereby Davidson can successfully move from the parliament in Edinburgh to the one in Westminster before the next election – voters tend not to like it when politicians make them vote for their own convenience, as the 2017 election reminded us, so even an ultra-safe seat by-election could go disastrously wrong – that the Tories don’t really have anyone like her at Westminster means it feels inevitable that at some point the Scottish Tories will have to live without their Maradona at some point in the not too distant future.

Davidson’s period of maternity leave will be the first test as to whether her opponents are right to believe that without her the Scottish Conservatives will fade into the background, or if she is the first Scottish Conservative leader of a new era of Tory competitiveness.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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