Brian Monteith: Cameron pulling Ruth Davidson’s strings

Want to know what Downing Street's plans really are? Then watch what Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is saying or doing. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Want to know what Downing Street's plans really are? Then watch what Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is saying or doing. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Davidson is the barometer that reveals Downing Street’s true intentions, writes Brian Monteith

The dominant issue in UK politics over the last few weeks has undoubtedly been the embarrassing degree to which the Conservative government has endured opposition and even parliamentary defeat over Chancellor George Osborne’s proposed cuts to Working Tax Credits.

There have been other issues of course – the muddle over the government’s attempts to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, the European migrant crisis that will not go away, the suspected terrorist bombing of the Russian tourist flight from Sharm-al-Sheikh being amongst the most prominent. Nevertheless, for all their importance, it has been the seeming injustice and scale of the Working Tax Credit cuts that have created the largest most persistent headlines.

All eyes are now looking towards the Chancellor’s autumn statement in a few weeks when he has the opportunity to amend or even abandon his proposals that are intended to find savings towards his deficit reduction plan. He has said he is in listening mode but no-one can be certain about the outcome, such is the scale of the savings he would be giving up.

In seeking to predict any government’s behaviour, it is usual in such circumstances to try and find some nuggets in the public speeches or off-the-record comments of a politician or his close associates.

I suggest there is a new barometer available for Downing Street decisions which might directly influence the politics of Scotland. That barometer comes in the shape of the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson.

The Scottish Tory leader has shown herself over the years to be nothing other than a Cameron loyalist. This should come as no surprise, as she is generally held to have been given every encouragement by Cameron’s apparatchiks to stand for leader, especially once it became clear that Murdo Fraser could win the leadership. Such an outcome offered the prospect of a new (or newish) party that Cameron or his lieutenants could not influence.

Davidson’s loyalty to Cameron has not necessarily caused her a great deal of difficulty, such has been his relative popularity in Scotland compared to that of Ed Miliband. Although the general election result in Scotland was bitterly disappointing for the Scots Tories, so long as Ruth Davidson gave a good account of herself it would not be her neck on the block. Not unexpectedly, she delivered a robust campaign and was thus spared the question of resignation that faced Jim Murphy.

So when Ruth Davidson does take a different line from David Cameron – as she has over Working Tax Credit cuts – it is so rare that it is worth considering what might be behind such a deviation from the norm – and if all is as it seems.

We should start from the first principle that Ruth Davidson has called upon the Chancellor to reconsider his proposals for cutting Working Tax Credits because she genuinely believes he is planning to go too far too fast. Not all politicians cravenly follow votes, well, at least not all of the time. The fact that there is next year’s Holyrood elections to consider may just be a coincidence.

To the cynics I would say that, while it may sound good politics for Davidson to protest before the Holyrood elections, the outcome will be known this month and the results will be delivered to the people it effects before the vote is held. Surely it would only be damaging for Davidson to have appealed for change and failed. “Who listens to Ruth Davidson? Why, not even George Osborne,” would be the damaging answer tossed at her repeatedly in the Scottish Parliament.

If George Osborne does not listen to Ruth Davidson will she then back Labour (and possibly the SNP) by offering to make good some or all of the cuts from the new powers conferred on the Scottish Parliament?

Davidson is no fool and has a bevy of canny advisers. Weighing all these aspects up I believe we should conclude that she knows what she is doing and has been signalled by Osborne that the autumn statement will indeed try to reduce the impact of the cuts, without dropping them altogether.

This leads us to another interesting statement, namely Davidson’s recent speech in Brussels committing Scottish Conservatives to support the campaign to “remain” in the European Union – even though she did not know what deal the Prime Minister may yet achieve.

These sort of speeches do not just happen by chance, they are choreographed and it was flagged well in advance as a key contribution to the EU debate. It will have been cleared by Downing Street and must be part of the general strategy and tactics deployed by Cameron and his chief negotiator, George Osborne.

There was no need to make such a pro-EU speech, Davidson could have instead laid out a number of demands that she would like to see the Prime Minister achieve for Scotland’s benefit – such as returning fisheries management to the UK and therefore, under the Scotland Act, to the Scottish Parliament. She must be conscious too that, according to YouGov, 27 per cent of SNP supporters wish to leave the EU, and that Ukip is still trying to chip away at the Scottish Tory vote. Sounding more EU-sceptic could have strengthened her hand with these voters, for she can never be more Europhile than the Liberal Democrats or Nicola Sturgeon.

One can only conclude that Davidson supports an unreformed EU at all costs, and yet only yesterday Cameron reiterated that he would campaign for the UK to “leave” if he does not get advantageous terms.

Davidson is, however, the barometer inside the Cameron tent. We can only conclude she knows there is no prospect that Cameron will get a decent set of concessions – or, if he decides to campaign for the UK to leave, is willing to take a different view from him. That would be a first. I wager that Cameron’s negotiation is a bluff needing all the help it can get and his latest threat to leave is the biggest bluff yet.

l Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain