Ruth Davidson has sprung a few surprises in her time as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, mainly at the ballot box recently. Supporting free prescriptions in Scotland is another. This policy was implemented by the SNP six years ago, by the Scottish Government’s then Health Secretary – Nicola Sturgeon.
The Conservatives have opposed and at times pilloried the policy. On the day it was announced, the Tories said it was “politically irresponsible and a drain on public resources at this time of huge financial challenges in the NHS”.
Under Davidson, they have changed their tune. Now, the policy is seen as a way of helping keep people out of hospital, which is one of the greatest drains on NHS resources.
Davidson can expect to be the subject of derision from the SNP, over that terrible crime of politics, the U-turn, and over “copying” SNP policy and therefore endorsing it.
However, she will have calculated that the about-turn is likely to bring her more gain than pain in the general election campaign. And everyone is entitled to change their mind.
The Conservative leader has also come up with a positive suggestion on how to improve the existing free prescriptions system, by looking at the cost of GPs supplying over-the-counter drugs, and the cost of drug wastage. This kind of review is sensible and desirable.
Where Davidson will have difficulty is with her explanation that she is entitled to deviate from the policy of Theresa May’s government south of the Border, stating: “That’s what devolved administrations and devolved parties do.” This opens the door to challenges over why she has not taken the same approach with other UK policies which are unpopular in Scotland.
But overall, while the switch may be political opportunism at its best, this could turn out to be a shrewd move. Taking away free prescriptions would be unpopular, and pledging to keep them costs nothing extra.
As the SNP has often demonstrated, populist measures go a long way in politics.