Controversial policy leaves Ruth Davidson in a tricky place as she tries to attack SNP, writes Tom Peterkin.
With precisely six weeks until Theresa May’s snap general election, two issues have emerged in Scotland which are defining the campaigns so far.
On the one hand there is Scottish independence – a cause normally embraced with feverish enthusiasm by the SNP but which the party leadership seem curiously reluctant to talk about this time round.
On the other hand there is the two child benefit cap and associated rape clause – a hugely controversial Conservative policy which the Scottish Tories are obliged to support but are desperate to avoid talking about.
The Conservatives’ desperation to steer clear of the rape clause is counter-balanced by their mustard-like keenness to move the conversation on to independence, because they sense it is an uncomfortable topic for the SNP.
And just as Sir Isaac Newton pronounced that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction, the SNP’s reluctance to fly the independence flag from the rooftops is balanced by the party’s determination to cite the rape clause as the ultimate expression of Conservative callousness.
“A barbaric assault on women,” was how the SNP MSP Christina McKelvie described the two child cap and rape clause when it was the subject of a highly charged Holyrood debate earlier this week.
The benefits policy, Ms McKelvie said, was indicative of the “harsh and cruel nature of the Tory government that always seems to find a new low to stoop to when it comes to attacking the dignity, living conditions and income of the vulnerable.”
The most devastating contribution to Tuesday’s debate, however, came from Kezia Dugdale. MSPs, who up until that point had been in riotous form, fell silent as the Scottish Labour leader read out a letter from a rape survivor, who would be affected by the two child cap.
In an attempt to save money on benefits, the UK government has imposed the cap to prevent parents claiming child tax credit on more than two children – a move which has angered the Tories’ opponents.
Fanning the flames has been the so-called rape clause, introduced to exempt women who conceive a third child as a result of rape from the cap. But in order to claim the benefit, rape survivors would have to fill out a form declaring they were attacked – a process described as abhorrent and demeaning by the Tories’ opponents.
In her letter, the rape survivor described how tax credits had kept her family’s “heads above the water”.
“There is no way I could complete that awful form of shame,” was how she described the bureaucratic hoop that she would now have to jump through in order to claim the cash.
Having written of her harrowing ordeal and the repercussions on her state-of-mind, the survivor added: “Looking back, that [filling in the form] really could have been the thing that tipped me over the edge – the difference between surviving to tell the tale and not.”
The letter must have made uncomfortable reading for Ruth Davidson. The Scottish Tory leader finds herself between a rock and a hard place on this one. One suspects there is nothing more she would like to do than express her own disapproval of this policy. But to do so would put her at odds with Theresa May and would give sub-editors the opportunity to dust down their “Tory split…” headlines.
Instead, she is confined to defending what her opponents regard as the indefensible, caught in a SNP and Labour pincer movement. Ms Davidson’s earnest attempts show empathy with the victims of sexual violence while explaining the need to get the UK’s public finances back on solid ground cannot compete with the fury over what is a horrendous policy.
Her argument that Ms Sturgeon has the levers – through the new welfare powers devolved to Holyrood – to mitigate against the cap and rape clause cannot compete against the deeply moving personal testimony of Ms Dugdale’s rape survivor.
Against this background, the Scottish Conservatives are anxious to concentrate on what has become safer ground for them – the threat of Scottish independence.
Ms Davidson and her colleagues sense that Ms Sturgeon’s agitation for another referendum is playing badly with a substantial proportion of the electorate.
The polls appear to be bearing that out. According to a Kantar survey of 1,060 Scots, only 26 per cent supported the First Minister’s autumn 2018/spring 2019 timetable for indyref2. On the question of Scottish independence, 60 per cent were No against 40 per cent for Yes (when don’t knows were excluded).
With those sort of figures it is not difficult to see why the Tories see the SNP’s raison d’etre as a source of strength.
Despite protestations to the contrary, Ms Sturgeon also appears to acknowledge that indyref2 is playing badly.
Hence, her decision not to lay out the “next steps” she intends to take to advance her referendum plans until after the June election.
Making a high-profile statement in the middle of an election campaign on how she intends to defy Theresa May and press ahead with an independence vote would play into the hands of Ms Davidson.
The question now is whether Tory anti-independence voices will make an impression on the SNP’s moral outrage. In six weeks’ time we will know the answer.