Ruth Davidson’s central role at conference signals Tory determination to save the Union, write Tom Peterkin and David Maddox
IN WHAT has been a rapid rise through the ranks of the Conservative Party, Ruth Davidson has quickly become an old hand at new experiences. At the relatively youthful age of 34, the Scottish Tory leader has already won a leadership battle, is attempting to stamp her authority on a tired party and regularly locks horns with Alex Salmond at Holyrood.
On Wednesday, there will be another notable first for her curriculum vitae when she introduces David Cameron to Tory activists at the UK party conference in Manchester just before the Prime Minister’s keynote speech.
It will be a big moment for Davidson when she stands up in front of the true-blue faithful – many of whom will probably only have a fleeting notion of who she actually is.
But the fact that she has been given what has become seen as one of key conference slots is a clear attempt by the UK Conservatives to bring the battle to save the Union to the forefront of British politics.
In recent years, being chosen to speak before the Prime Minister takes the stage has been imbued with a special significance – most notably when Sarah Brown spoke movingly about her husband at a time when he was desperately in need of a boost.
By putting Davidson at the heart of the action before Cameron speaks, the Conservative Party is trying to send out a signal of the importance it attaches to next year’s referendum.
Of course, the Nationalist camp will make the point that a Scottish leader being reduced to a warm-up act for Cameron is precisely the problem that the Tories face when it comes to Scotland.
The portrayal of Davidson as a subordinate London lapdog plays perfectly into the Yes Scotland narrative that Scotland is being run by a Westminster government that it did not vote for.
Indeed, when Davidson herself looks out from the main stage over the sea of faces staring at her, it will be difficult for her not to compare the strength of the party south of the border with the rather depleted bunch she leads at home.
But for all the Yes Scotland cynicism, it can be argued that the UK party’s gathering at Manchester Central does mark a genuine attempt to put Scotland at the heart of its agenda.
Where Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran were allocated just 19 minutes between them at Labour’s recent jamboree in Brighton, Davidson has two big speeches – one today plus her gig supporting Cameron. Furthermore, the Scottish office minister and Scotland’s only Tory MP, David Mundell, will be presenting a Scotland report to conference.
It remains to be seen what sort of impact this will have in party heartlands of the shires and the south east, where there are those who believe that England would be better off without Scotland and all those Labour voters who have proved so troublesome to Tory hopes at General Elections – not least in 2010 when Scottish votes deprived the Conservatives of an overall majority and forced them into Coalition.
But it is another sign of Cameron’s determination not to go down in history as the Prime Minister who was unable to prevent the break-up of the United Kingdom.
The question that Cameron and Davidson face when it comes to the referendum is: how can they make a positive contribution to the Better Together campaign when the party’s stock lies so low in Scotland and is treated with total derision by the SNP?
Despite the jury still being out on her own performance as leader, Davidson is determinedly upbeat about her party’s fortunes since she defeated Murdo Fraser for the Scottish Conservative leadership.
“We are bringing forward a lot of new faces in the party which means it will change,” Davidson told Scotland on Sunday. “Since I became leader we have had 2,000 new members.”
In addition to that, Davidson pointed out that the campaign group Conservative Friends of the Union had brought in 80,000 people who oppose independence.
Although these Friends of the Union are not on the membership list, Davidson is encouraged that there are those who were happy to be aligned with the party on the constitutional issue.
“We are now holding steady in the opinion polls,” she said. “We are in better shape now than since 2011. We are better managed, better funded, better structured. We have community activists. We have new people coming through, a new generation of Conservatives.”
There may be the beginnings of a new generation of Conservatives, but the reality is (and as so many elections have confirmed) that most Scots find it easy to dismiss the Conservatives as a toxic brand.
Nevertheless, Scottish Tories do believe that the party has a vital role to play in defending the Union.
“There are still several hundred thousand people who will loyally vote Tory in Scotland,” said one party stalwart. “They are the most pro-Unionist of any people in the voting block.
“The Tory contribution will be to get the Tory vote out in large numbers.”
With a referendum electorate of four million or so, getting the Tory vote out will be a vital part of the Better Together strategy.
Its importance is underlined when one considers that in the 2010 General Election, 412,855 Scots voted Tory (491,386 voted for the SNP).
Pragmatists within the party concede that its image problem north of the border limits the role it can play in other spheres.
“We will be getting the vote out rather than influencing the debate,” the insider said. “The reality, as everyone knows, is that the Conservatives are not the most popular party in Scotland. We know that the campaign should not be led by Tory voices. You will find that the Lib Dems are in a similar position.
“We are happy to leave the leadership of the campaign to Labour. It is Labour and Alistair Darling who will take the front-line role in all of this.”
But the Conservatives will not blithely hand over all responsibility for strategy to Labour. Also on the agenda, is the thorny issue of what a No vote would actually mean and the various attempts by the Unionist parties to set out what new powers Scotland would receive should the people choose to stay within the UK.
In her interview with Scotland on Sunday, Davidson suggested that she favoured a UK-wide approach on an issue, which has proved to be a tricky one for her personally.
Elected to the Scottish Tory leadership on the promise that she would draw a constitutional “line in the sand”, Davidson has attracted much internal criticism for establishing a commission under Lord Strathclyde to look at devolving more powers to Holyrood.
While refusing to pre-empt the outcome of commission, which is expected to report at the end of this year, Davidson indicated that the results of Strathclyde’s work should be fed into a UK-constitutional convention.
“I like the idea of having some form of convention or commission or even Royal Commission to look at devolution,” Davidson said. So far we have looked at devolution in a linear way discussing it for Scotland or for Cardiff Bay.
“You won’t often hear me say this but I think [Welsh Labour First Minister] Carwyn Jones has made a sensible suggestion [to have a UK constitutional convention].”
Davidson was referring to the proposal outlined by Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales, for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention to examine the future governance of the UK before next year’s Scottish independence referendum.
Such an approach would appear to be at odds with that championed by Labour’s Douglas Alexander, who believes there should be a Scottish national convention based on the Constitutional Convention, which brought about the birth of devolution.
Those favouring Alexander’s proposal believe that Scottish constitutional change must be made in Scotland and not hamstrung by the intricacies of attempting to find a solution for the UK as a whole.
Whatever model is adopted, it is clear that there is appetite in London for constitutional change.
One UK government insider told Scotland on Sunday that control of housing benefit, and hence control over the bedroom tax, and further devolution of income tax were among the items on the agenda.
“I think there is a feeling that as far as non-financial matters are concerned there is not much more than can be devolved and the balance is about right,” the insider said.
“That leaves taxation and welfare and we have to look at where we can feasibly devolve more. There is an argument for devolving income tax further because the principle of devolving is in place with the most recent reforms.
“It is difficult to see how welfare could be devolved but housing benefit is a possibility given the issues that have been raised about it recently.”
Behind all of this there is also a touch of realpolitik when it comes to the Conservative take on Scotland’s constitutional arrangements.
For every Scottish Tory irritated by Davidson’s line in the sand volte face, there are those in England who would be happy for more Machiavellian reasons to see Scotland take greater control over its politics.
“There is a lot of interest in this agenda in London,” said one Tory insider. “There are many who would like to see greater powers for Scotland in return for a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. That is seen very much as the quid pro quo.”
It is not difficult to see why losing a bunch of Scottish safe Labour seats would prove popular for a party which had to rely on Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems to get a grip on power after the defeat of Gordon Brown.
Equally, it is not difficult to see why such a move would prove deeply unpopular for a Labour Party, which for years has dominated Scottish politics and has sent an army of MPs south to Westminster.
Given Labour’s extreme reluctance to give up traditional heartlands that have played a vital role in taking the party to power in the past, it is clear that there is much more to come on this issue.
It may suit the Tories to appear to play second fiddle on the ground in the Better Together campaign. But by the time Davidson has introduced her leader and made the journey back north, she will be preparing for the most important game of constitutional chess Scotland has ever seen.