Why Ruth Davidson is heading for Westminster

The Scottish Tory leader is too young, too talented, and too ambitious to sit on Holyrood’s opposition benches for much longer. 

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Is Ruth Davidson, like so many Scots before her with big ambitions and a “guid conceit” of themselves, on the road to London? This has always been the presumption – that she’d go there sooner or later, taking the high road or low, for stage two of what looks likely to be a wildly successful career.

In the Times today, though, my chum Alex Massie appears to throw cold water on the idea. The headline on his article says that the leader of Scotland’s Tories “won’t go to London to seek her fortune”. I took it from first reading that Massie believes Davidson will stay north indefinitely. He tells me rather that he thinks the latest Tory wheeze, to install Michael Gove as caretaker leader and PM and then replace him with Davidson in time for the 2022 election, is fanciful. To which I can only say: agreed.

Davidson’s future is a thing of endless, fascinating debate, and rightly so. I’ve met a lot of politicians in my time, old warhorses and young lions, and she is the genuine article, the real deal, a politician of surpassing talent. She is built for the big stage: charismatic, funny, as sharp as a shipyard put-down. She works for audiences in Scotland because she is ordinary and has a bit of patter, and she works in the southern shires because she has that recognisable trait of can-do, not-buggering-about, up-and-at-‘em spirit. She wasn’t in the Territorial Army for nothing: as Wodehouse describes Bertie Wooster’s love interest Honoria Glossop: “one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.”

Where Davidson chooses to expend her talent is therefore of interest on both sides of the Border. She’s known to get irritated by the speculations of the London media. As one ally puts it: “she’s had to hold her tongue in recent months when English commentators have written about how refreshingly upfront and forthright and all the rest of it she is and then they write: ‘she SAYS she doesn’t want to come to Westminster and enter the scratching contest for No 10, but we think she’s lying on that one.’”

As another says: “It’s true she had plans for another big job in the immediate future, but that job was to be a mum.”

The impact motherhood will have on the pregnant Davidson’s ambitions is unknown. Perhaps she’ll recalibrate and opt for a comfortable life with her partner and child in Edinburgh. She wouldn’t be short of job offers outside politics. But I suspect parenthood is unlikely to change her long-term trajectory. The Scottish Tories will have to do without her for around six months’ maternity leave, but she’ll then return with a bang – there will be around two years until the 2021 devolved election, which will decide what she does next, and she will be chafing at the reins.

She could conceivably, at that point, become first minister as leader of the largest party, though there’s a strong possibility the SNP and Labour would combine to prevent this happening (even though the Scottish Tories are largely at the liberal, Blairite end of the Conservative spectrum, the bogeyman must be kept alive). More likely, Nicola Sturgeon will squeak another term, and Davidson, after ten years in charge of her party but still only 43 (the age at which Tony Blair became PM), will look elsewhere for a fresh challenge.

It’s at this point she’d head south. The next UK general election is scheduled for 2022, and, if that date sticks, Davidson should be able to find a Scottish seat that will send her to Westminster. In the (likely) event of another Tory government, we could expect to see her in a senior ministerial job quite quickly, and after that, who knows?

There is, of course, an exciting new regionalism in British politics, as the directly-elected mayors across England’s major cities began to flex their muscles. Substantial figures such as Andy Burnham in Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands have high national profiles and are likely to accrue more power and authority as time passes. The days of obeying ordinances issued from Whitehall are passing in England, and have long since passed in Scotland. Increasingly, talented politicians will have the attractive option of staying closer to home and getting big stuff done rather than setting off for the capital’s bright lights, lonely nights and brutal games, and being one drone among many.

I’d bet money, though, that Ruth Davidson will end up at Westminster. She’s too young, too talented, and too ambitious to sit on the opposition benches at Holyrood for much longer. She has the chops for the big offices of state, and, as has been noted by many, the kind of liberal instincts and personal charm that can attract voters from across the political spectrum. So, to my English friends: not now, not this decade, but soon. She’s coming. Prepare yourselves.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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