Theresa May is under great pressure at the Tory Party conference, of that there is no doubt, but for all the private briefings, articles and speeches telling her what she ought to do, does it really mean she will not be leader by this time next year? I have my doubts she will be replaced, and a look at Ruth Davidson’s speech yesterday gives us a clue why.
A few weeks ago Teddy Taylor passed away, a political enigma full of contradictions; whether you agreed with him or not he said what he believed in and stuck to his principled position through thick and thin. When in the 1979 general election Teddy lost the Cathcart division it was a huge blow for the Scottish Conservative Party, for while it won 22 other seats there was no-one quite like him who possessed the common touch. So many Scottish Tory leaders or ministers that came after him were educated at independent schools, and English ones at that. This did not make them bad people or poor politicians, but unlike Teddy they often struggled to identify with the aspirational blue-collar vote, tenement Tories like myself and my parents who had previously voted Labour.
The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has needed a Teddy Taylor ever since he found solace in the Southend by-election, after which I worked for him at Westminster. We did not always see eye to eye; he was decidedly teetotal, supported the Closed Shop (he was a member of the NUJ) and opposed student loans – but no politician was more devout on the issue of fighting the European Union, resigning as a Scottish minister when Edward Heath took us into the Common Market.
George Younger, Malcolm Rifkind and Ian Lang were all too posh to take up Teddy’s torch, and while Michael Forsyth came close, coming as he did from a council house in Montrose, his semi-rural constituency of Stirling did not resemble the vast council estates of Cathcart, and his politics while often populist in pitch were always more free-market that Teddy’s.
Now that desperate need for Scottish Tories to attract the West Central-Belt working class vote is being answered – and it is paradoxically coming from Ruth Davidson. I admit that the analogy is not an obvious one, Teddy was a social conservative while Davidson is a social liberal; Teddy campaigned last year for us to leave the EU while Davidson campaigned for us to remain; but I think it is no mistake that Davidson made reference to Teddy in her speech to conference yesterday, for you did not have to accept Teddy’s world view to see that he was an excellent communicator who often rose above party politics and won personal votes over tribal party divisions.
If Ruth Davidson is to become First Minister she must become a Conservative in the mould of Teddy Taylor. She must be able to win people over to her and her party because she has attractive principles that go with the grain of everyday views; she must be seen as a people’s champion who will challenge vested interests – be it big business or big government; and she must be trusted to shout out for Scotland within the Union, something that Teddy never shirked from.
When Ruth Davidson said yesterday that her party could not be only for people in “big hooses” but for those “who clean their tenement step as well” she was drawing directly on Taylor’s sense of Scottishness and equality of opportunity, of Burns’, A Man’s a Man for A’ That. When she echoed Taylor with her best line that her party “isn’t there for those at the top of the ladder” but “this party is the ladder” she summed up how she wants Conservatism to be for everyday people, be they down on their luck or enjoying success, be they needing of help or willing to give it.
Through such a speech as she gave, and to long and loud applause, delivering a call to arms to fight the next election from today on, to rally round an embattled leader whom she quite correctly has identified as having saved the union by putting so many SNP MPs to the sword, Davidson will be the conference darling.
A word of caution though, she must not let it go to her head. She must not over-reach herself and become simply a Tory version of Nicola Sturgeon.
Humour is important for all politicians, and Davidson has shown she has it and can deliver it, but she also has to display humility, and 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.
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. Displaying any ambition to go from Holyrood to Westminster risks, however, undermining her party’s need for Davidson to become First Minister first.
Telling the UK government how it should conduct its affairs – such as warning about a non-existent threat to gay marriage from the DUP, or arguing for an EU deal that is the equivalent of not leaving at all – is neither helpful nor astute.
Nor does calling for greater devolution across the UK of government institutions sit easy with her position that management of agriculture, fisheries and so many of our laws and taxes should have resided in Brussels rather than London, never mind Edinburgh – a position that she recently reaffirmed she would vote for again.
In response to Boris Johnson’s interventions Theresa May has pronounced she is driving her government from the front. What May does not need is Davidson adding to the sense of a party full of backseat drivers trying to grab the steering wheel and turn it to the left or the right. With Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, the Tories already have enough combatants contributing to the melee.
Instead, if Ruth Davidson can develop Teddy Taylor’s charming manner of convincing people he would fight for them no matter their background or beliefs, rather than just telling us what she’s against, she can rise above party tribalism and seize the real prize.