Ruth Davidson could rue the fallout after the new PM calls Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff on the EU, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
In the week that Theresa May clambered over Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, replaced David Cameron, dismissed George Osborne and promptly jetted off to meet Nicola Sturgeon, let’s take a moment to appreciate this high watermark of female political power.
It isn’t the done thing, I know. But it won’t need to be remarked upon once about half the population are in roughly half the positions of power more or less half the time. That moment may arrive soon – at next year’s G7 conference in Sicily, May will line up alongside Germany’s Angela Merkel, and they could be joined by Hillary Clinton as US president, meaning women would be little more than a rounding error away from filling half the picture.
Unfortunately, there’s a chance Marine Le Pen could be there too, spoiling the moment – but what a moment.
There was another powerful woman getting an ovation in Westminster this week. Ruth Davidson wowed a Brexit-weary parliamentary press pack who haven’t seen the likes of this kick-boxing, bull-riding, former Territorial before. Her barrack-room gags not only had the canteen where she held court over a parliamentary lobby lunch echoing with laughter, but hours later along the press lobby corridor you could hear bursts of giggles as reporters tapped out their notes and recordings.
Her best gag was also an accurate piece of analysis, with Davidson joking that while Labour is “still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette – after withdrawing our massive Johnson”. Theresa May duly confirmed the Tories are no slouches when it comes to the dirty work, winning praise for a Cabinet reshuffle that is as politically shrewd as it was ruthless.
She cleared out David Cameron’s allies from Cabinet and sent Michael Gove to the backbenches with the instruction to reflect on the virtue of loyalty, making a decisive break with the past.
She promoted age and experience, and in appointing the largest number of state-educated secretaries of state since the Second World War – including the first education secretary to attend a comprehensive school – she gave the appearance of creating a meritocratic Cabinet.
She appointed leading Brexiteers to key positions, particularly David Davis at the helm of a new ministry to lead negotiations with the EU, and Andrea Leadsom as environment secretary in charge of sorting out a new farm payments system. The senior roles should put Brexit-supporting backbenchers at ease – and will, crucially, make Leave campaigners responsible for clearing up their own mess.
And yes, she, er … reintroduced that “massive Johnson” as the UK’s chief representative overseas, but that could also prove to be a shrewd move, keeping one of the most troublesome figures on the Tory benches out of the country and out of the way for much of the time.
Johnson had huge international profile as mayor of London, bringing significant overseas investment into the capital. And in any case, the UK now has two foreign policy priorities – Brexit and international trade – which both have been given their own dedicated ministries.
Standing up to Vladimir Putin and working towards peace in the Middle East will have to wait. Anyone upset by the UK’s accelerating retreat from the world stage probably isn’t thrilled with the thought of post-Brexit Britain anyway, and may already be shopping for a one-way ticket to Canada.
Once the jokes were out of the way, Davidson carried a serious message: that Scotland must be an integral part of the Brexit process and cannot be “bolted-on” to UK decision-making. That appeal seems to have been heeded by the Prime Minister, who travelled to Edinburgh yesterday for a meeting with the First Minister.
On the steps of Downing Street, May had made protecting the “precious, precious Union” her top priority, and there are suggestions she is less willing to compromise with the Scottish Government than David Cameron was ahead of the 2014 independence referendum.
Yesterday she said she would “listen to any options” proposed by Edinburgh – but crucially said she would only take forward a “United Kingdom approach” into negotiations with the EU.
It was already clear before the EU vote that senior SNP figures did not want to hold a post-Brexit referendum they could not win. Now Theresa May is calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff.
It’s a risky strategy for both governments. There is no way to bridge the gap between “Brexit means Brexit” and “Remain means Remain”, the antithetical positions of the two leaders. Davis, a veteran Eurosceptic, prefers a loose relationship with the EU via a free trade deal similar to the one struck with Canada, and is against the free movement of labour. But even if a Norway-style deal with Europe was on the table, with access to the single market via the European Economic Area, does that really satisfy Sturgeon’s demand for Scotland not to be taken out of Europe against its will?
The First Minister must hope the timing and content of the deal Davis strikes is so offensive to Scottish voters they choose independence over the turmoil of leaving the UK, re-joining the EU, and erecting customs checks along the border.
Theresa May might make a success of Brexit, but she could equally be the Prime Minister that loses Scotland – something David Cameron managed to avoid. Even if May does win her own gamble on Scottish independence, she risks torpedoing the Scottish Conservatives as the party that took Scotland out of the EU against its will, fuelling the SNP juggernaut for another generation and undoing all the good work done by Ruth Davidson.
One way or another, one of these powerful women will be the undoing of the other. And we haven’t seen that before, either.