The Scottish Conservatives need to decide what they really stand for

For all Ruth Davidson’s charm and energy, the party lacks a distinctively progressive policy agenda. 

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Probably the one bit of good news for Michelle Ballantyne this week is that Ruth Davidson has already begun her maternity leave. Ballantyne, the Scottish Tories’ spokesperson on Social Security, is in the headlines after indulging in a bit of old-style right-wingery about the undeserving poor. I can’t imagine her leader would have been impressed.

During a debate at Holyrood on austerity, poverty and inequality, the discussion turned to Universal Credit and, in particular, the two-child cap, which limits tax credits to a family’s first two children. Tories aside, Holyrood has been opposed to the cap, and is especially angry about the “rape clause”, which allows mothers who have conceived as a result of rape to secure an exemption but requires them to provide evidence to the DWP.

Ms Ballantyne insisted Universal Credit is “working for the many”, and that it was “a key part of reducing inequality in this country”. Challenged to defend the system, the MSP said: “It is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way, and don’t claim benefits, have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.”

There are undoubtedly many Tories - and social conservatives in all parties - who would agree with this Tebbitish sentiment. There are not many who would say it out loud in parliament, though. The “feckless poor breeding like rabbits to rake in more taxpayers’ dosh” trope is a bit “80s Kelvin MacKenzie Sun splash”. It’s not exactly the look Davidson has been cultivating as she has attempted to modernise and soften her party’s image to win votes from the centre.

But Ballantyne has arguably performed a helpful service. Because for all Davidson’s charm and energy, it’s still not all that clear what the Scottish Conservatives do stand for. There’s the Union, of course – and on this they have adopted a DUP-style mulishness in defence of a one-size-fits-all Brexit settlement for the whole of the UK.

In other areas, however, the messages have been more mixed. The party recently had education reformers scratching their heads when it voted against testing for Primary One pupils. There is a sense of policy drift - or absence - and one increasingly hears the argument that Davidson and her team are better at opposing than proposing.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, says the SNP struggles “to find a way to respond to Ruth”, but adds: “The Conservatives seem to me to be utterly opportunistic. It all seems to be opposing. They haven’t a clue about policy. I’m not even sure they are interested.” An SNP cabinet minister agrees: “Ruth Davidson’s personal performance is good but what will their policy platform be to lead the nation?”

This may be harsh. Davidson’s aides point out that not many opposition parties have a fully worked-through policy platform two-and-a-half years out from an election. Her policy chief Donald Cameron, a mild-mannered and thoughtful MSP, is in the early stages of preparing the manifesto for the 2021 devolved election. Cameron is the son of the chief of Clan Cameron and was educated at Harrow and Oriel College, Oxford, so isn’t exactly the archetype of the New Tory that Davidson covets and herself represents, but he is on the party’s centrist, One Nation wing. He is also engaging widely as he attempts to formulate a policy programme that will appeal across society and build on Davidson’s remarkable electoral success to date.

Davidson knows that, despite the acclaim from Westminster and the Scottish electorate’s apparent willingness to give her a chance, there’s a mountain to climb if she’s to displace Nicola Sturgeon from Bute House. The odds remain firmly against that happening. But it’s typical of her bulldoggish spirit that she’s as insistent in private as she is in public that she can get there.

Nevertheless, the current policy vacuum allows drift and risks the Tories being too easily defined by their opponents. They need to take some big and counter-intuitive positions that emphasise their progressive credentials relatively soon – perhaps a pro-immigration stance that sees them secure from Westminster more Holyrood input into or control over immigration to Scotland; or, say, devising and driving a major anti-homelessness campaign; or using their natural alliance with wealth creators to lead a campaign for a more morally aware and active business sector. And they need to put some clear blue water between their own view of the world and that being pursued by their party-mates at Westminster.

Ultimately, those umbilical ties mean Davidson is always driving with the brakes on. She is a Remainer who must nevertheless toe the Tory line on Brexit, even though Scotland is heavily against leaving the EU. She inevitably risks contamination from the chaotic politicking of Conservative MPs and the nature of the individuals in the middle of the affray - it’s only recently the Tories could claim to have achieved a level of detoxification north of the border, and that achievement may still be fragile. She must defend Universal Credit and many other UK government policies, regardless of any personal misgivings.

It’s all a big ask, and there will soon be a baby to deal with too. But by the time the Tory leader returns to the frontline, the battle for 2021 will be heating up. She’ll somehow have to find a way to take her foot off the brake.

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