Andrew Whitaker: Davidson’s popularity not enough

TAX CREDIT fiasco puts Scots Tory leader between a rock and a hard place, writes Andrew Whitaker

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidsons popularity extends to a guest appearance on Have I Got News for You. Picture: Contributed
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidsons popularity extends to a guest appearance on Have I Got News for You. Picture: Contributed
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidsons popularity extends to a guest appearance on Have I Got News for You. Picture: Contributed

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to be faring as well as any politician from her party north of the Border in living memory, despite the ongoing unpopularity of David Cameron’s government with most Scots.

An appearance on the popular BBC show Have I Got News for You and the winning of an award for her contribution towards lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender rights, in the same week, suggest her star is on the rise.

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Ms Davidson’s recent performances at Holyrood must place her among the most improved of all MSPs in the last Scottish Parliament after what some observers viewed as an initial shaky period.

She’s also one of the few politicians to have enhanced herself politically through her involvement in the cross party Better Together campaign, when she was generally viewed to have had a good referendum.

Her only real problem is her party, which earlier this week at Westminster displayed a reluctance to listen to disquiet from within and outside its own party over cuts to tax credits, which many say will cost the average working family £1,300 a year.

Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine’s assertion this week that now is “probably as good a time” as any for steelworkers to lose their jobs, due to his claim that UK employment opportunities are supposedly growing, was a good example of why the Tories are once again being referred to as the “nasty party”.

Yet on the issue of tax credits and the government’s defeat in the House of Lords on the issue, Ms Davidson firmly set herself against cuts stating that such an approach would cause unacceptable “suffering” for poorer families.

It was the most strident rebellion of her leadership against David Cameron and George Osborne, who she has never really sought to differentiate herself from in any significant way previously.

Ms Davidson’s departure from the UK party on such a critical issue is perhaps somewhat ironic given her election in 2011 as Scottish Tory leader on a platform of uncompromising opposition to the plan from her leadership election rival Murdo Fraser for a centre-right breakaway from the UK party.

Mr Fraser’s plan to effectively liquidate the Scottish Tories, based on a prognosis that the brand was toxic, was probably one of the most engaging political stories in the first half of this parliament.

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Ms Davidson, then only just a few months into her career as an MSP, was the standard bearer of the section of the Scottish Tory establishment that opposed Fraser’s breakaway idea, with figures such as UK minister David Mundell firmly on her side.

There’s nothing obvious to suggest that Ms Davidson has shifted her stance on the issue and it would be a huge surprise if she was any time soon to unveil plans for a new centre-right party in Scotland along the lines of that advocated by Mr Fraser. But it’s difficult to imagine that Mr Osborne’s tax credit changes will be the last controversial cuts measure from George Osborne, who at times appears to almost revel in styling himself as the “austerity chancellor”.

Despite her own rising stock, whether Ms Davidson likes it or not the Tories remain a toxic brand in Scotland and policies such as the tax credit cuts and the bedroom tax suggest the likes of Mr Osborne are not likely to endear themselves to the majority of Scots anytime soon.

The Scottish Tories made a series of bold claims last week that the party was on the march in Scotland again and was set to make gains at next year’s Holyrood election.

The party put out a press release stating that “thousands of former Scottish Labour voters are moving their support to the Scottish Conservatives ahead of next May’s Holyrood elections” and staking claims to be the party of “Scotland’s moderate centre-ground”.

It may well be that it is this strategy that is driving Ms Davidson’s opposition to the tax credit cuts.

But an increasing divergence from the Westminster party comes at a time when Scottish Labour is adopting an autonomous and federal structure, the Scottish Lib Dems already long a federal party, and could perhaps see the Scottish Tories go the same way.

No matter how personable and less out of touch Ms Davidson may be compared with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, it’s stretching credulity to suggest this would in itself be enough to reverse what is a managed declined at best for the Scottish Tories and at worst a long, slow slide into oblivion.

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The 14.9 per cent share of the vote won by Ms Davidson’s party in Scotland in May’s general election was below that of the 17.5 it polled in 1997, with the Tories failing to get more than one MP elected north of the Border at any Westminster election in the 18 years since then.

Simply posing as a slightly nicer and more “one nation” version of a UK party that is responsible for imposing some of the biggest cutbacks to the welfare state and public services in post-war Britain will not cut it for Ms Davidson.

And should her party fail to make progress at next year’s Holyrood election, a bright and astute politician like Ms Davidson will know a “one more push” mentality won’t cut it either, with a law of diminishing returns coming into play.

Is it then possible that in such a scenario Ms Davidson would be tempted to revisit Mr Fraser’s vanquished project of a centre-right breakaway in Scotland, even if that were to happen by stealth?

Of course, it may be that changing the packaging of the Tories with another name will make little difference to a party in which senior figures such as Lord Heseltine are perceived by some Scots to be cavalier about the decimation of industries such as steel.

As for Ms Davidson, whatever her own stance on tax credits, there may be many people having had a large chunk of their income removed through cuts who are unlikely to forget that the party asking for their vote in next year’s Holyrood elections is led at UK level by politicians who were reluctant to budge on the issue.