What is Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservative Party up to?

What is Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservative Party up to?

by Frankie Hutcheson
article from Wednesday 31, July, 2019

THERE CAN SCARCELY BE a Conservative in Scotland who has not regarded the growing gulf between Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson with mounting disquiet.

“Operation Arse”, a whispering campaign that started in autumn 2018 to keep Johnson out of No 10 was bad enough, when it culminated in Davidson banning him from the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen in May. She then backed a series of contenders for the leadership, which made it look as if “anyone but Boris” was her preferred candidate.

Once elected, Davidson pointedly failed to praise Johnson for winning the leadership contest. She did, however, heap praise on Scottish Secretary David Mundell in the wake of his sacking by Johnson. She also let it be known that she had asked Johnson to retain her “work husband”, so underlining publicly that the Prime Minister was deliberately snubbing her by sacking “her” Scottish Secretary.

Then, the day before Johnson was scheduled to come to Scotland, came Davidson’s column in the Scottish Mail on Sunday, in which she laid her cards unequivocally on the table. Provocatively titled “I’ll deal with Boris ... but I can’t back a No Deal”, she wrote:

“I don’t think the Government should pursue a No Deal Brexit, and if it comes to it, I won’t support it. I wrote to tell the former Prime Minister Theresa May that last year and I confirmed my position to her successor when I spoke to him last week. As leader of the party in Scotland, my position exists independently of government. I don’t have to sign a No Deal pledge to continue to serve.”

Now Davidson may be nothing but consistent, and it is perfectly true her position as Scottish Conservative leader does not depend on Boris Johnson or any pledge he requires members of his government to sign.

However, insofar as it looks ever more likely that we are heading for a No Deal Brexit, with advocates for No Deal in the Cabinet, intense No Deal preparations being made and no sign of a new deal emerging, Davidson has put herself, and the Scottish Conservatives on a collision course with the Conservative Government.

Already, there are problems. Davidson might not have to sign a No Deal pledge but any Scottish Conservative MP in Johnson’s government, notably the new Scottish Secretary Alister Jack as well as Colin Clark, Lord Duncan and Baroness Goldie, will have done so. 

If it comes to a vote in the House of Commons on a deal or no-deal, how would the Scottish MPs vote? With the government, or in line with Ruth Davidson’s position? Having taken the Westminster whip, they ought to vote with the government, but that merely highlights Davidson’s impotence as Scottish leader, and that Scottish Conservative MPs are no more than lobby fodder, unable to stand up for Scotland on this most important of issues. Conversely, if they vote against the government, possibly even causing it to lose the vote, they would be behaving as a de facto separate Scottish party.

But the problems are mind-boggling if No Deal Brexit turns out to be the only game in town and a general election ensues. Would candidates in Scotland stand on Ruth Davidson’s platform or Boris Johnson’s? As the journalist Kenny Farquharson tweeted:

“If Boris Johnson calls a general election to seek a mandate for a no-deal Brexit, how can Ruth Davidson with any credibility call on Scots to vote Tory?”

The split between Davidson and Johnson aka the Conservative Government has highlighted the weakness of her position, which the SNP has not been slow to exploit. What does it mean to be leader of the Scottish Conservative Party when you cannot get done what you believe is in the best interests of your country – ie. not a No Deal Brexit – even though your party is in government? 

As SNP MP Stephen Gethins commented: “it’s time for Ruth Davidson to find a backbone and join the SNP in meaningfully opposing Boris Johnson’s disastrous Brexit plans – instead of always rolling over. She says she will support Mr Johnson but not a no-deal brexit but the fact is you can’t do both. Her position is untenable and weak.”

Faced with this contradiction, it’s no surprise the last few days have seen a slew of articles suggesting the time has come to revisit the question of an independent Scottish conservative/centre-right party along the lines of the CSU in Bavaria, or more problematically, the DUP in Northern Ireland. 

Tellingly, Davidson felt the need to address the issue in her Scottish Mail on Sunday piece. Insisting it’s a matter for members to decide whether they want a separate party, she writes “you don’t start the ball rolling just because your preferred candidate for PM was beaten fairly and squarely”. This is disingenuous as it ignores the fact that the impetus for separating would be policy, not personality: according to Davidson, a Remainer, the Scottish Conservative Party is more pro-EU than the UK party.

Davidson goes on: “We are a devolved party, just as Scotland is devolved. As party leader, I am in charge of policy, campaigning, staffing, funding, management, candidate selection and everything else that goes with fighting elections and communicating with voters”. She points to the, or her, electoral success with this model, but that rather begs the question because her success was before Brexit and without any split between the Scottish and UK parties. Her final words on the subject of a separate Scottish party “Not on my watch” could not be more emphatic. But they do not erase the core contradiction nor will they exorcise the spectre of a separate party.

The danger is that the more policy-based and ideological the divergence, the harder it becomes to resist the idea that the Scottish party should be independent, if only because as the SNP argue, and the DUP demonstrate, an independent party can wield more influence at Westminster. The logic of a separate party then points inexorably to more devolution, and a federal set-up, if not full-blown independence.

The last of the puzzles of Davidson’s position is that it is likely to be at odds with the position of Conservative members and voters in Scotland. Like their counterparts in the rest of the UK, I think Scottish Conservatives by and large voted for Brexit in the referendum, and Johnson in the leadership election. Admittedly, this impression is based on personal experience, but I have seen no polling which suggests they behaved differently in these polls to Conservatives in England.

Given all these snags with Davidson cleaving so militantly to an anti-Johnson, anti-No Deal position, and given that she is a canny politician whose eye is never far from what the polls and focus groups are telling her, there are only two, albeit not mutually exclusive, explanations. 

First, her antipathy towards Johnson is so great, and her commitment to remaining in the EU so fervent, that any other position is impossible for her. 

Second, Davidson’s eye is not on the rump of current Conservative voters, let alone party members – she is taking their support for granted given they are primarily anti-SNP, pro-Union votes and Labour is no threat to these votes. Her eye, rather, is on potential Conservative voters, those she hopes to pry away from SNP and Labour because they are disillusioned by both, but would be put off by a No Deal, pro-Boris stance by the Scottish Conservative Party. These are the votes she will need if she wants the keys to Bute House in 2021.

I think Davidson’s opposition to No Deal is part of her wider mission to woo these voters, but it is a tricky line she is treading. She needs to appear to be anti-Boris and against No Deal, but then when No Deal looks inevitable, and there being in reality no alternative (apart from a second Brexit referendum which I can’t conceive either Johnson or Davidson ever supporting), she can reel back. Will her position be:

"I voted Remain, but I respect the vote. I would have preferred to leave with a deal but that is not possible. It’s the SNP’s fault for failing to vote for Theresa May’s deal. Vote Conservative if you believe in democracy."

Already you can see the ground being prepared for this pivot. As soon as Davidson’s article appeared, the MSP Adam Tomkins was tweeting about the importance of the distinction between “pursuing” a No Deal Brexit and “preparing” for one to shore up the claim that Johnson is engaged in the latter, not the former. On Newsnight the MP Kirstene Hair laboured the same distinction as she tried to parry questions about what the Scottish Conservatives would do in the event of a No Deal. Davidson’s upbeat statements after her meeting with Johnson this week all emphasised how she was now reassured that he was doing his utmost to secure a deal and Johnson himself, in contrast to Michael Gove’s earlier statements, obligingly played down the possibility of No Deal.

So that’s all right then. But it’s still a high-risk tactic. Voters are liable to see it as a ruse, perceiving Davidson’s anti-Boris, anti-No Deal stance as posturing - convenient, toothless and insincere. Already the SNP are laying the ground for the flip-flopping charge: following her meeting with Johnson yesterday Nicola Sturgeon’s main message was that he was bent on a No Deal Brexit. 

The danger remains that setting up a collision and then swerving to avoid it is liable to impress no one. It leaves Davidson and the Scottish Party looking weak and peripheral, a sideshow to the main action. As such, she is hardly likely to win votes from unionist or nationalist Remainers. Nor will she endear herself to those who voted for the Brexit Party in the EU election or Scottish Conservatives who voted for Johnson. 

 

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