Ruth Davidson is ready to return for her biggest challenge yet — becoming First Minister

The Scottish Conservative leader is genuinely confident she can pull off one of the great shocks of modern British politics. 

NS

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For the past six months it’s been the most regularly repeated joke at Holyrood: Ruth Davidson couldn’t have picked a better time to have a baby.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has been on maternity leave since before Christmas, looking after baby Finn. This happy event has had the happy (for her, at least) consequence that she has been able to sit out the series finale of the Brexit soap opera. She hasn’t had to answer questions about the implosion of her party at Westminster, about where her alliances lie, or about how she is representing Scotland’s interests amid it all.

Instead, the path has been left clear for Nicola Sturgeon to act as the sole Scottish figure of any real seniority and authority as the UK stumbles and crashes through its greatest crisis since the Second World War. Sturgeon’s position is in a way easier – she uncomplicatedly shares the view of 62 per cent of the Scottish electorate that Remain was the better option. She is not responsible for the abject behaviour of the Tory or Labour leaderships, and doesn’t have to accommodate herself to or account for whatever the London branch of her party thinks or does on any given day. She has been able to play a – relatively – straight bat.

Davidson would have been in a different position. The umbilical cord that connects the Scottish party to London would have been yanked good and hard on a number of occasions. She would have had to tap dance around the Theresa May question, give some kind of indication as to what she thinks should come next, speak out on the European Research Group and the possibility of a second referendum, and face the scorn of a First Minister who would have sought ceaselessly to tie her to the damage being done to the country by the Conservative civil war.

And she’d have been managing all this with one eye on the 2021 devolved election – which, if not imminent, is certainly looming on the horizon.

Davidson’s stand-in, deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, who has done a steady, if low-key, job in her absence, has two more sessions of First Minister’s Questions to get through before the boss returns. She will make her comeback with a speech at the Scottish Tory spring conference, which begins in Aberdeen on 3 May.

It’s not clear whether baby Finn will accompany mum on to the stage – it offers one hell of a photo opportunity and a warm and happy human image that would dominate the media coverage, but it would also be a significant sacrifice of privacy. What is undoubtedly the case is that Ruth’s Return will give the Scottish political scene, and her own party, a real shot in the arm.

From that moment, it will be a sprint to the 2021 finishing tape. The Conservative strategy is already mapped out: in the 2016 Holyrood election the Tory message was that it would hold the SNP to account. Davidson was quite explicit that she didn’t expect to be First Minister, but said she would deliver a better quality of opposition than the Labour Party had been managing. It worked – the Conservatives went from 15 seats to 31, while Labour dropped from 38 to 24, and Sturgeon stayed in Bute House.

The 2021 game is different. This time Davidson wants Sturgeon’s job. The narrative will be that Scotland deserves better than the SNP, who by the time of the election will have been in power for 14 years. There will be a major focus on Sturgeon’s domestic record, especially on education, where the Tories feel the SNP has performed particularly badly. There will also be a fusillade of fresh policy ideas, particularly on the economy, to show the opposition is ready to take over and make a difference. There will also be some work produced from outside the party, which is intended to display an intention to collaborate and listen (and perhaps draw a contrast with the tactical narrowness of Theresa May).

The 2021 election is Davidson’s big moment. She will by then have been leader for a decade. Her success so far has been remarkable, but there remains a feeling that there is a ceiling on the potential Scottish Tory vote and that it is well short of what’s needed to become the largest party at Holyrood. Davidson doesn’t see it that way, and is genuinely confident she can pull off what would be one of the great shocks of modern British politics. The maths of then forming a government in a system designed to prevent overall majorities, and with neither the SNP or Labour, or indeed the Greens or Lib Dems, likely to fancy doing a deal with the Tories, formal or otherwise, is another story.

And of course Brexit hasn’t gone away, or got any easier or less politically flammable, and that is unlikely to have changed by early May. Davidson might want to talk about Sturgeon and education, or Sturgeon and the economy, but her opponents will be all too keen to drag her back into the burning house that is the UK Conservative Party, and its culpability in bringing about a national existential crisis. Handling that challenge will be as much a test of Davidson’s formidable political skills as plotting a course to victory in 2021.

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