IT FELT a bit like being summoned to the headmaster’s office. Several weeks ago I wrote a column in which I suggested Ruth Davidson came across as defensive and lacking in charisma.
Now I’d been asked if I wanted to meet the Scottish Conservative leader in person to judge if the reality matched my perception.
Coming days before a party convention which – I am reliably informed – will mark the start of “phase two” of her leadership and will serve as a forum for discussion on policy, it seemed the perfect opportunity to find out if she was making any headway with the uphill challenge of attracting new voters to her ailing party and to ask where she hopes to go from here.
Climbing the stairs to the coffee bar on the first floor of Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel, however, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Would Davidson be piqued and prickly or on an all-out charm offensive? In the end, she is neither.
Dressed in a smart black trouser suit and white top, she is courteous and businesslike, punctuating her answers with jocular asides, but still visibly bristling when confronted with something she doesn’t like.
As a former BBC journalist, she is not, she assures me, unduly affected by negative opinions expressed in newspapers, but admits “it’s only human to look and see what adjectives are used and mostly it’s things like ‘energetic’, so hopefully it’s representative [of my personality]”.
If she has any regrets over the way she is perceived it is that her sense of humour doesn’t always come across at set pieces such as First Minister’s Questions. “My sense of humour isn’t really tell-a-joke humour, it’s more...” “Gentle?” I proffer. “No, more dirty,” she guffaws, “and so it isn’t always appropriate for a parliamentary session.”
This is not just idle navel-gazing; in her time as leader, Davidson, 34, has faced fierce criticism for her presentational skills, particularly during FMQs, where she has been described variously as wordy, hectoring and – most brutally – “unable to hit a bull’s bottom with a banjo”.
With little frontline political experience, she must know she will have to raise her game if she’s going to best veteran Alex Salmond in the run-up to the independence referendum. On the upside, however, Davidson believes her inexperience means she is well placed to analyse the party’s failings and identify what needs to change if it is ever to woo back the voters it haemorrhaged in the post-Thatcher years.
One of the key problems she has identified is that it has trailed far behind the SNP when it comes to the sophistication of its party machinery. “The SNP looked at having a proper social media strategy, a proper conventional media strategy,” she says. “They knew exactly where their voter base was – they had much better software than we had.”
Given the paucity of the Scottish Conservatives’ support in Scotland, one wonders how much difference this could make, but Davidson is adamant better organisation is key: “To give an example – in 2010, we got 412,000 votes and one seat. The Liberal Democrats had 465,000 votes and got 11 seats.
“Fifty-thousand votes across a nation of five-and-a-bit million people should not be the difference of ten seats, but it’s about where these people are, being able to concentrate your resources, being able to fight the ground war.”
To this end, Davidson has overseen an overhaul of the party structure, from the grassroots organisation to the management, the final elements of which will be tied up at the convention.
Though her leadership rival Murdo Fraser wanted to disband the Scottish Conservatives – reforming it like a Newco Tory Party – Davidson has focused her energies on demonstrating that transformation runs deeper than a mere name change.
“We have to show people we have got the views of ordinary folk up and down Scotland at heart, that we can engage with young couples with children who are paying more in child care than they are paying on their mortgage,” she says.
Asked for evidence she is changing hearts and minds, she cites the 200 new members who signed up at Freshers’ weeks at the country’s universities, the 50,000 people who came forward to offer their support to the newly formed Conservative Friends of the Union and the victory the day before in the Annandale North council by-election.
These seem like tiny advances for a party which needs to take massive strides, but Davidson clearly sees the mainstreaming of the Tories in Scotland as a long-term project. One tactic she believes will pay dividends is the nurturing of fresh talent.
“To change the face of the Conservative Party, we need to change the faces of the Conservative Party,” she says, before reeling off a list of people in their 20s and 30s who became councillors in the May local elections.
“They will take time to be elected as MSPs or MPs, but you’ve got to have this new blood coming in to show that people’s misconceptions of old, white, straight men in pin-stripe suits in their sixties just don’t hold true any more.”
Where Davidson has certainly confounded Tory stereotypes is when it comes to gay marriage. As the UK’s first openly gay leader of a major party, she has backed the SNP’s proposals to enshrine same-sex marriage in legislation next year, but – as a member of the Church of Scotland, which opposes the legislation – she has also pushed for the Bill to contain protections to stop clerics being compelled to perform gay marriage ceremonies.
Last month, she was jeered during Stonewall’s awards ceremony, when she accepted its Politician of the Year title, but went on to criticise the organisation for handing a “Bigot of the year Award” to Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
On other issues, however, Davidson treads familiar Tory ground. Recently, she announced she would lower income tax and – more controversially – took a pot-shot at Scotland’s reliance on the public sector.
She is indignant when I say it must be frustrating to find she is promulgating broadly the same message as Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who recently attacked the nation’s “something for nothing culture”.
“I think you’ll find that Johann has moved on to ground that we already held,” she retorts. “Look at our 2011 manifesto, when we were speaking about the need for a graduate contribution to make sure there was good investment in our universities, when we were talking about the idea that people who earn £150,000 perhaps don’t need to get free aspirin prescriptions when there are people in this country with rare cancers who can’t get access to drugs which they could get if they lived over the border in Carlisle.”
When I ask – in the event the Tories should ever gain power in Scotland – what three headline achievements she’d like to deliver, she answers: “Improvements in health, improvements in schooling and improvements in opportunity.”
Shame. I’d hoped for something more specific, more imaginative. So has my view on Davidson changed from meeting her in the flesh? Not hugely. I never doubted her sincerity; indeed, I admire her commitment. In person she is affable and self-deprecating.
But she seems to lack the really big personality that might transform her from a competent to a great politician.
And, though she’s earnest and committed, I remain unconvinced she has the spark needed to ignite new passions for the Conservative Party in Scotland.