Analysis: Could Ruth Davidson become prime minister?

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson speaks at the party conference in Manchester on Sunday. Picture: PA
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson speaks at the party conference in Manchester on Sunday. Picture: PA
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She was one of the few star performers at the recent Conservative conference. Now, with Theresa May left reeling after a disastrous speech, could Ruth Davidson be parachuted into the top job in UK politics?

Constitutionally, being an MP is not a requirement of being prime minister.

But when asked if she was considering a leadership bid this week, the MSP replied: “I honestly can’t see it. It looks like the loneliest job in world.”

She added that she had never considered standing for a Westminster constituency at June’s snap election and did not regret doing so.

Yet with veteran Tories openly speculating over when Theresa May will be forced from office, the party could soon be looking for a new leader.

Former health minister Edwina Currie yesterday said “she loved Ruth’s style” and joked the Scottish Tories should take over Conservative Central Office to put an end to the “waffle”.

The Scottish question

The biggest barrier to Davidson arriving at No 10 is her lack of Westminster seat. To effectively govern the Tory members of the House of Commons, you must sit on the green benches alongside them.

“Telling Westminster MPs how they should be doing things when she does not sit there is just the sort attitude that is likely to put people’s backs up,” former Conservative MSP and Scotsman columnist Brian Monteith said.

“All this media talk of her being a second favourite behind Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May does her no favours other than to elevate her reputation in the mind of the public – who do not have a vote in such an election.”

Political commentator David Torrance points out that, constitutionally, being an MP is not a prerequisite to becoming prime minister. “Sir Alec Douglas-Home was PM for two weeks without being an MP, pending a by-election in Perth,” he said.

But he added that such a scenario ever being repeated was “highly unlikely”. Instead, Davidson would need to find a seat. “Preferably a Scottish MP, but tricky given it’d involve a by-election and getting a current incumbent to step aside,” he added.

The Brown legacy

From David Lloyd George to Gordon Brown, there is a long record of prime ministers who have represented non-English constituencies. But the advent of devolution and the later introduction of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) has changed the relationship between central government and the Celtic nations.

“I don’t think there will be another Scottish prime minister,” senior SNP MP Pete Wishart predicted during a 2015 EVEL debate in the Commons. “I can’t see the case and circumstances when that will be possible.”

He added: “It would be absurd for a Scottish MP to be secretary of state for health and education when (they) would be debarred form full voting entitlements.”

But Scotland on Sunday columnist Euan McColm believes where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“The fact that the Scottish Conservative leader is not an MP matters not a jot to her champions in the party,” he wrote. “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.”

2021 and all that

Torrance believes that Davidson is more focused on leading the Scots Tories into the 2021 Holyrood parliamentary election. Jumping ship before then could seriously risk scuppering the party’s chances of increasing its number of MSPs and forcing the SNP from power.

“She realises the optics of her quitting as Scottish leader and heading south would look appalling,” he added.

Monteith makes a similar point. “Displaying any ambition to go from Holyrood to Westminster risks undermining her party’s need for Davidson to become First Minister first,” he wrote.

Team BoJo

The biggest obstacle to any Davidson takeover at Conservative Central Office are the other Tories who covet the top job - Boris Johnson being chief among them. The foreign secretary has made a number of high-profile interventions on Brexit, which some have interpreted as positioning him for a leadership bid. “We all know what he’s up to,” said party grandee Lord Heseltine yesterday.

There is no love lost between Davidson and Johnson.

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

“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.”

He continued: “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.”