RUTH Davidson has a tough job ahead if she wants to lead the official opposition in Holyrood, writes Lesley Riddoch
Are the wheels coming off the cart for David Cameron and Ruth Davidson? It may seem a silly question as opinion polls put the Conservatives 14 points ahead of Labour at UK level and neck and neck with Labour in Scotland. Indeed, polls suggest Ruth Davidson’s personal popularity might help her oust Kezia Dugdale as leader of the opposition after May’s Holyrood elections. In a nation that has solidly backed Labour with at least 40 per cent of the vote between 1921 and 2007, that would represent an extraordinary turnaround.
But Scottish Conservatives know from long experience that glowing results ahead of elections have a habit of not turning into votes on the day. There’s one simple reason for that: the Tories’ enduring profile as the nasty party of British politics.
Scottish Conservatives have attempted to dismiss this as a dated lefty preoccupation, a throwback to hunger strikes, miners’ strikes, steel plant closures and mass unemployment – bad old days that are long gone. The trouble is that thanks to the austerity policies of George Osborne and the welfare “reforms” of Iain Duncan Smith, the bad old days have returned. Food banks, sanctions and benefits stripped from the terminally ill – every day a story appears that makes 2016 look a lot more like 1986, when Maggie Thatcher was half-way through her project to shrink the state and place the market at the centre of everything. No wonder, then, that Ms Davidson has apparently decided defending the Union is a more profitable strategy for the forthcoming Holyrood elections than defending Tory social policy.
She intends to maximise the success of 2014’s No campaign by claiming other Better Together allies are too weak to defend the Union from SNP attack. Some 600,000 personalised letters will be sent to disaffected Labour and Liberal Democrat voters this week, describing Davidson and her party as the only reliable defenders of the UK at Holyrood.
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It’s not a bad pitch, though there are some large snags. It’s not clear even the wobbliest Labour voter thinks the main issue for the next five years is the danger of the SNP extracting too much money and power from Westminster. Self-interested No voters may be relieved that Scotland is still in the Union, but will probably be even more relieved that the Nats are at the helm in Holyrood, hell-bent on getting the best financial settlement for Scotland. And then there is that fairly major snag, David Cameron himself.
Even though their canvassing appearances are likely to be more occasional than Jeremy Corbyn, the Three Corbies of the Tory party – Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Duncan-Smith – will be very visible during the Holyrood campaign, and not necessarily in a good way.
Cameron’s Brexit dalliance has opened a can of worms that could yet pull Britain out of Europe and tear the UK apart. The latest poll of polls assembled by Professor John Curtice shows 51 per cent in favour of remaining and 49 per cent wanting to withdraw. Numbers fluctuate, but the Scots are always markedly more pro-European Union than the English. So it’s possible Scotland could be forced out against its will and that possibility will be aired throughout the latter stages of the Holyrood campaign – unless proposals for a “new settlement” by the president of the European Council fall so far short of Cameron’s wish-list tomorrow that an autumn poll suddenly seems preferable.
It’s not yet clear if “big beasts” like Boris Johnson will campaign to leave, and eurosceptic Cabinet ministers are reportedly champing at the bit to be allowed to campaign freely for an Out vote.
Meanwhile, George Osborne’s stance over the fiscal framework with Scotland has been hammered by a unanimous vote of the Scottish affairs select committee report and non-SNP supporting academics. Elsewhere, the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee has raised concerns about the “complexity and workability” of Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws wheeze, suggesting it won’t last more than a few years.
The handling of the junior doctors’ strike in England has been disastrous and has allowed the Scottish Government to make successful overtures to disgruntled NHS staff south of the Border, and this weekend public health campaigners were furious about the government’s decision to drop plans for a sugar tax. Worryingly for Cameron, the founder of Action on Sugar has laid the U-turn directly at the Prime Minister’s door. According to Graham MacGregor: “All the experts agree the plan would have prevented childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Everything he does ends up in chaos, this was his one opportunity to achieve a legacy. He will be a Prime Minister who has achieved nothing.”
Well, let’s be fair, not nothing. Cameron looks set to preside over the destruction of the Welfare State with the next roll-out of Universal Credit across Scotland on 1 April. This looks set to be as much of a disaster as the bedroom tax – itself ruled discriminatory by the Court of Appeal last month. The National Audit Office has published a “withering condemnation” of Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to roll six benefits into one. The Public Accounts Committee has called management of the project “extraordinarily poor” and “alarmingly weak”. Why the fuss? Universal Credit is paid monthly and the first payment only arrives six weeks after application. That means claimants who don’t apply for an advance loan may have to survive on nothing at all for more than a month. It’s been happening all over Britain. The folk at my local post office are dreading the change.
David Cameron says Universal Credit will empower claimants. Citizens Advice say the six-week wait for an initial payment is throwing many claimants into a short-term crisis that spirals into long-term debt. But who cares?
Ruth Davidson can probably assume that harsh treatment of the disabled, low-paid and unemployed will scarcely bother the affluent majority who might vote Tory. That may be a safe assumption south of the Border, but not here. So Davidson must revive the Better Together feel-good factor (if such ever existed) and distance herself from the punitive, anti-European baggage of the Nasty Party (despite being a member of it).
It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.