Euan McColm: Ruth Davidson needs to step in if Tories to be saved

Pals act: Johnson puts his arm around Davidson after the EU debate at Wembley Arena in June last year. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Getty
Pals act: Johnson puts his arm around Davidson after the EU debate at Wembley Arena in June last year. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Getty
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Davidson will have to get involved in the leadership battle if only to secure her position in Scotland, writes Euan McColm

Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson may share a political party but, beyond that simple fact, they are polar opposites.

She’s a working class Fifer with a low tolerance for the sort of privileged former public schoolboys who tend to clog up the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. He… well, he’s exactly the sort of chap to make Davidson’s teeth itch.

Anyone who saw the pair clash during a televised debate before last summer’s referendum on EU membership will remember the relish with which Davidson tore into Johnson.

Naturally, the pro-EU Scottish Tory leader and the Brexit crusading former Mayor of London were always going to disagree on how people should vote in the referendum but their differences run deeper than the merely ideological. Bluntly, Davidson loathes Johnson; she thinks him a charlatan whose priority is, at all times and any cost, the advancement of the career of Boris Johnson.

If she is asked about him and can find the energy to restrain herself, she will deliver an exquisitely noncommittal response, dripping with subtext about what a colossal arse she considers him.

But for all that divides them, Davidson and Johnson have something in common: they are the current darlings of the Conservative Party. While Theresa May’s premiership grinds slowly but inexorably towards its miserable conclusion (the Tory Party’s current unofficial schedule has her being deposed by colleagues after the UK leaves the EU in 2019), Johnson and Davidson are regarded by substantial numbers of Tory members as potential saviours of their party.

A poll of Conservatives last week revealed that Johnson is their favourite to succeed May when she’s shown the door. But while 23 per cent of Tories back him, Davidson isn’t far behind with the support of 19 per cent of the membership.

The fact that the Scottish Conservative leader is not an MP matters not a jot to her champions in the party. If she indicated the slightest inclination to move from Holyrood to Westminster, there are powerful Tories who would see to it that she was able to do so.

Davidson, having last year achieved her stated aim of leading the Tories past Scottish Labour to become the official opposition at Holyrood, is adamant that her ambition is to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. She is not – and is unlikely ever to be – a potential candidate to become PM.

However, though a Davidson-Johnson battle to succeed May won’t take place in 2019, the pair’s careers are inextricably linked. If Davidson wishes to be First Minister, then she will have to do all she can to stop Johnson realising his dream.

Davidson has been incredibly successful in changing the perception of the Conservative Party among Scottish voters. Until recently, voting Tory in Scotland was all but taboo; under Davidson’s leadership, that is no longer the case.

Sure, the independence referendum played its part in that change of Tory fortunes: Davidson skilfully established the Scottish Conservatives as champions of the UK and successfully appealed to voters who couldn’t bear the prospect of indyref2. But Davidson’s personal qualities were also key; it’s okay to vote Tory under Davidson because she’s not the usual sort of Tory, goes the logic.

Should Johnson achieve his aim of becoming the next Prime Minister, then Davidson will find it difficult to maintain the idea that the Tories have changed. He is, after all, precisely the sort of Tory that Scots so disdain.

Let’s say that, over the next couple of years, Davidson makes good on her promise to develop appealing new policies. Let’s entertain the possibility that she might build on the support the Tories received last year. How on earth would a Johnson premiership help her maintain momentum?

If Davidson is to maximise support for the Scottish Tories, she will do so by convincing voters that hers is a compassionate, modern conservatism. One can imagine how difficult that would be with Johnson, all Brexiteer bluff and bluster, in Downing Street. Sturgeon wouldn’t have to worry about picking apart Davidson’s policies – she would simply point to a Johnson-led Tory party and warn “same old, same old”.

What Davidson needs is a weak, ineffectual Prime Minister. She needs someone beside whom she looks the dominant presence (May for example).

What Davidson most definitely does not need is a brash old Etonian who personifies the Conservative Party rejected by so many Scots in recent years.

It is often said of the Tories that they are able to set aside their differences if they are led by a winner and this, I think, is largely correct. While Labour allows itself to get bogged down in internecine warfare, the Tories have a habit of rolling up their sleeves and getting on with beating them.

But while Johnson might (for now) be seen as a vote winner south of the border, he is viewed by sensible Scottish Tories as electoral poison. Davidson and those closest to her would consider a Johnson premiership disastrous.

Should Johnson fail, Davidson won’t necessarily be home and dry: the ludicrous Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Tories third most popular choice to be next Prime Minister.

When Davidson campaigned in last year’s Holyrood election, she put her firm commitment to the Union front and centre but the threatened second independence referendum on which she capitalised is now dead in the water and it would benefit the Scottish Tory leader to remain detached from colleagues in London.

As one of her colleagues told me, “there’s a time to be loyal to Downing Street and there’s a time to rebel – and that time is when some overgrown public schoolboy drags the Tories back to 1954”.

Davidson will address the Conservative annual conference in Manchester this afternoon and she’ll be hailed a hero. But when she leaves, she’ll have to convince Scottish voters that she’s detached from the party at Westminster.

It’s time for the staunch unionist Ruth Davidson to assert her independence.