It was about a week before the 2017 general election that Colin Clark realised he might have toppled the giant. A local farmer from Aberdeenshire, he was standing against Alex Salmond in his constituency of Gordon, north east Scotland. Two years previously, he’d tried the same thing, and failed. The former Scottish First Minister had cruised to victory with 47.7 per cent of the vote. Clark came a miserable third. He stood for the Scottish Parliament elections, with a similar result. Eventually he managed to be elected as a councillor.
Then Theresa May called the snap election. In 2015, Salmond had amassed an army of local supporters to turn out the vote. This time, it was the Conservatives that had help on the ground. As polling day approached, the door knockers returned from middle-class neighbourhoods with exciting news. Liberal Democrats were “to a man” voting Conservative. Not only that, but some SNP voters were as well. On 8 June 2017, Clark won the seat with a majority of 2,607 votes. He was promptly christened “the Salmond slayer”.
“When I got down here people will ask you which constituency you are,” says Clark, when I meet him on a dark winter’s night in Portcullis House, where MPs have their offices. “You say, ‘Well, I beat Alex Salmond,’ and then they shake your hand again and say ‘well done’.” As well as Conservatives, he’s been congratulated by Labour MPs and “one or two” from the SNP. He recounts how Jacob Rees-Mogg even compared the constituency battle to that between Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington.
Clark, who switches between suits and farmer jackets, and has a hint of a grey quiff, describes north east Scotland as “England the wrong way up” – a Home Counties with oil and gas. Residents own cars and homes, earn above average wages, and admire entrepreneurs. Although Scottish politics is polarised by the independence debate, he detects an economic vote behind him that united both unionists and nationalists.
It was Gordon where a pre-Presidential Donald Trump decided to build his controversial golf course in 2010. Salmond, then First Minister, rolled out the tartan carpet for Trump, before the two men fell out over the Scottish government’s decision to approve an offshore wind farm in sight of the links.
Trump last made a public appearance at the golf course on 24 June 2016, the day of the EU referendum result, and used the occasion to declare Brexit a “great victory”. Yet Scottish politicians have shunned Trump en masse, with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson christening him a “whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch” on Twitter.
“Did he turn up? I maybe wasn’t concentrating at the time,” says Clark (he remains schtum about which way he voted). “Hey, look, I really don’t want to comment on what Donald Trump’s logic is – he’s the president of the United States of America which is the biggest economy in the world and I hope we carry on having a very good relationship with North America.” So would he meet him? “I am going to remain very open minded. If he comes to Gordon, because his golf course is there, I would meet him – of course I would. I am so below the pay grade of managing to invite a president to come to anywhere.”
He, Trump and Salmond could play a round of golf together, I suggest. Clark laughs. “There’s no chance Trump would invite him,” he says of Salmond. Nevertheless, he retains a certain fondness for the man he defines himself by beating. “I never had a problem debating him. He was never personal – he was always relatively professional, but we had absolutely diverging views. We were like the Two Ronnies – it was a show.”
Since his defeat, Salmond has made his former colleagues squirm by taking up the offer of a show on Russia Today. “I’m bitterly disappointed he’s not had the decency to invite me on,” Clark jokes. Nor did Salmond invite him to his show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “I was really disappointed. He had [Brexit secretary] David Davis and [Speaker] John Bercow he didn’t invite the bloke who beat him.”
Clark arrived at Westminster as part of a 13-strong platoon of Scottish Tory MPs, which, most agree, owes its existence to someone who is not at Westminster at all: the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. I meet Clark just before Christmas, after a week in which the Brexit debate became a constitutional game of pinball, in which Davidson’s view of a softer Brexit for the whole of the UK appeared to have prevailed.
Although Clark maintains “we’re all Brexiteers now”, he represents a constituency that voted to remain both in the UK and in the EU. His job at Westminster, as he sees it, is to be optimistic. “In contrast to the SNP, we do not want to be gurning and moaning about Scotland. We want to be selling a very strong and positive story about jobs, about economics.” He wants to see trade deals post-Brexit that take advantage of the UK’s North Sea drilling technology, and boost Scotland’s fishing industry.
After the successes of 2017, the task for the Scottish Tories is to work out a formula that relies on more than just the charisma of Davidson. Just a year on from winning a council by-election, Clark is now in a position to bend the ear of the Westminster government and possibly the president of the United States. But for now, he’s happy to be known by the man he succeeded.
“The chief whip of the PM asked me after the election, in one of those casual conversations, what political ambitions you’ve got,” he says, smiling. “I said I’ve already achieved it. It was beating Alex Salmond.”