Scots Tories frozen in Boris's headlights

Scots Tories frozen in Boris's headlights

by Frankie Hutcheson
article from Monday 5, August, 2019

SATURDAY'S Scottish edition of the Times led its front page with the headline, “Tories disown Davidson”, reporting an article on the previous day’s Conservative Home  league table of cabinet and some other well-known Conservative politicians (1). Ruth Davidson sat at the bottom of the table, having slumped to 14% from a high of 87% in the wake of the 2017 general election.

Before anything else, some caveats. The poll is of an undisclosed number of Conservative members UK-wide, so it doesn’t tell us anything about how Scottish Conservative members might feel, let alone Scottish Conservative voters, past or potential. It’s possible that Davidson is more popular in Scotland than this indicates, but it would be a mistake to assume that the Prime Minister and his government are much less popular among Scottish Tory members than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK – at least going on the evidence of the reception given to Boris Johnson at the Scottish hustings for the leadership (2).

Moreover we are in the classic summer lull for news, where journalists are forced to whip up news stories, and in Scotland nationalist outlets and commentators have leapt with glee on the Johnson/Davidson “Brexit face-off” as the Scottish Daily Mail termed it. Perhaps sensitive to nationalist charges that they have given Davidson an easy ride as leader, commentators have begun to turn on her, most prominently Kenny Farquharson in the Times who declared on Wednesday “Peak Ruth is long past. Project Ruth is over” (3).

Significantly, perhaps, the editorial in the Scottish edition of Saturday’s Times struck a defensive note, putting the blame for the poor rating “more on the current direction of the party than on Davidson herself”. The party is sidelining those who do not sign up wholeheartedly to leaving Europe with or without a deal, and while unlike her Scottish Minister David Mundell, Davidson cannot be sacked by the Prime Minister, she is being “cold-shouldered by the party faithful”. Asserting that Davidson “still retains widespread backing north of the border”, the leader-writer goes on to speculate that “low ratings south of the border may prove to be a positive benefit in a Scotland that largely voted to remain in Europe rather than leave”. Johnson is squarely blamed for Davidson’s troubles because “by suggesting that only true believers are now to be welcomed in the upper hierarchy of the party, he has effectively alienated what was once the moderate heartland of Conservatism” (4).

Nevertheless Davidson’s position is weaker than at any point since 2011 when she won the contest for leader of the Scottish party. She narrowly defeated Murdo Fraser in that election, and he has been waiting in the wings ever since. On Wednesday he published an article in the Scotsman which revised the argument for a separate Scottish centre-right party, which he had stood on in the leadership election (5). Whereas the model then was the German arrangement between the CSU and CDU, he now suggests a set-up like Quebec, where the mother party confines itself to contesting seats in the federal parliament while the separated party only fights seats in the devolved parliament. 

Just as in 2011 a separate party would have allowed a rebranded Scottish Conservative Party to put clear blue water between itself and Thatcher’s toxic legacy, so a new party now would enable the Scottish Tories to disown a Johnson-choreographed Brexit and its aftermath. 

That Fraser is making his first pitch for the leadership since 2011 – and he is backed publicly by Stirling MP Stephen Kerr and privately by a number of MSPs – testifies to the depth of the crisis facing the Scottish Conservatives.

Davidson’s credentials as Scottish Conservative leader – one-nation, liberal, Remainer – have served her spectacularly well in the last Westminster and Holyrood elections. A hard Brexit and a “hard right toff” at 10 Downing Street (even if Johnson is a proven one-nation liberal) look like leaving Davidson high and dry. If she sides with Johnson, she undermines her own credibility and the credibility of Scottish Conservatives. If she doesn’t, she undermines the credibility of the Prime Minister and the UK party. 

Both options play into nationalist hands. Siding with the Prime Minister proves the Scottish Conservatives are no more than a branch office, the lapdogs of Westminster Tories. Not siding with him concedes that Scottish Conservatives are different, in essence separate, and should be independent, and the same argument applies to Scotland tout court.

For all his warm words about Davidson, Johnson has been ruthless in asserting his authority and has given no quarter when it comes to Davidson’s soft Brexit instincts. He sacked her “work husband” David Mundell as Scottish Secretary, explicitly against her advice, and replaced him with a relatively unknown ERG “toff” Alister Jack. On top of that, he bypassed the remaining 11 Scottish MPs to appoint Worcester MP and Brexiteer Robin Walker to the Scotland Office, breaking a convention which has held since 1887 (6).

Davidson’s stance has put Scottish Conservatives on a collision course with the UK government and a full-blown identity crisis. This is not some peripheral or temporary difference in policy, which can be swerved around or ridden out until Davidson remounts the Indyref2 warhorse.

The referendum result was an earthquake whose aftershocks show no sign of abating: the birth of a new UK party, the resignation of a prime minister, a major cabinet reset, Labour in mortal disarray, the LibDems back from the dead. It isn’t just party politics which is realigning itself, but the entire political landscape. It is undergoing a transformation where voters no longer understand themselves according to traditional Conservative/Labour and Right/Left distinctions. 

In Scotland, the unionist/nationalist divide adds a further layer of complexity. Davidson has been remarkably successful in establishing herself as the face of unionist opposition, with Scottish Conservatives as the go-to party for stopping a second independence referendum. But the present crisis threatens to fracture the unionist vote as never before. Like Johnson, Davidson is boxed in by Farage’s Brexit Party and Swinson’s Lib Dems, but the Prime Minister’s tactic of outflanking Farage by out-Brexitting him is anathema to the Scottish leader. Scottish Labour may win few, if any, seats, but it will still rob the Conservatives of winning majorities. Should Fraser push his prospectus for an independent centre-right party, this could rip the Scottish Conservatives apart. With the unionist vote split five ways, the SNP would sweep the board (7).

How quaint the Scottish Tories now seem who privately congratulated Davidson on dodging the Brexit bullet, when she went on maternity leave in the spring! Since her return, she seems to have been, as one member put it to me, missing in action – she has been noticeably absent from the media, leaving her MSPs to comment on SNP blunders. Her regular column in today’s Scottish Mail on Sunday focuses on the difficulties of combining her job with a baby (8). It reminds me of the adage: if you have nothing nice to say about someone, better say nothing – or as little as possible. But the silence from Davidson only reinforces the impression that the party is frozen in Boris’s Brexit headlights.

(1) https://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2019/08/javid-johnson-and-rees-mogg-take-the-podium-in-our-latest-cabinet-league-table.html

(2) https://www.thinkscotland.org/thinkpolitics/articles.html?read_full=13957&article=www.thinkscotland.org

(3) https://www.thenational.scot/news/17807609.scotland-s-media-fallen-love-ruth-davidson/

(4) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-times-view-on-ruth-davidson-fallen-heroine-gfwmpkpvm?shareToken=96f15b1df3433a0a05e1ac76878aee87

(5) https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/what-scottish-unionists-can-learn-from-decline-of-quebec-s-separatists-murdo-fraser-1-4973603

(6) https://www.holyrood.com/articles/news/controversy-over-english-mp’s-appointment-scotland-office 

(7) https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/14560/analysis-could-scottish-tories-break-away

(8) https://twitter.com/ruthdavidsonmsp/status/1157967122598961152?s=21

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