Lesley Riddoch: Ruth Davidson could boost case for Scottish independence

Could Ruth Davidson’s sudden unpopularity amongst English Tories actually boost her fortunes in Scotland and strengthen the case for independence?

On the face of it, these are contradictory and unlikely outcomes.

The Scots Tory leader’s popularity has reportedly slumped from 84 per cent (after the 2017 snap election) to 14 per cent in the latest survey of party members by the influential party blog, Conservative Home. Assistant editor, Henry Hill says Ms Davidson is now “the lowest-ranked politician in the entire [cabinet] table - most likely [due to the] fallout from her highly publicised split with the prime minister and hostility to no deal”.

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Poll: Majority of Scots now in favour of independence
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Well, well. Tank Commander Davidson dared to cross Do or Die Colonel Johnson and has been unceremoniously demoted by the very party members she once charmed. The politician who once collected brownie points as a loyal supporter of the wooden Theresa May now stands exposed as disloyalty personified.

Sure, the jaunty, media-savvy working-class Scot once looked good on top of tanks, and even better as leader of the opposition at Holyrood. The astonishing achievement of beating Scottish Labour into third place in 2017 also helped the Tories maintain their slender grip on power at Westminster. But that was back when Conservative leaders in London and Edinburgh sang from the same hymn sheet and the Union vaguely mattered to English party members. Now, anything obstructing a speedy Brexit is disposable. That includes the once plucky but now plain obstinate Scottish leader, whose authority was undermined by Boris Johnson’s appointment of Alister Jack, a privately educated millionaire landowner, to replace David Mundell as Scottish Secretary. Ms Davidson is a state-school-educated, Europhile centrist with a same-sex partner and a bairn. Which politician is the genuine face of the Scottish Conservatives? Sparks are bound to fly.

Naturally, there’s been wry amusement over Ms Davidson’s fall from grace amongst political opponents, who’ve long complained about soft-touch media treatment of Ms Davidson’s exclusive focus on independence and regular policy flip-flops. But another powerful dynamic may also be at work in the minds of some Scottish voters. Namely, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

There’s little question Boris and a No Deal Brexit are the joint enemy of most Scots – even across the hitherto un-scaleable constitutional divide. Ruth is also most certainly the enemy of Boris. So, might her cussed stand actually and perversely count in her favour?

Obviously independence supporters are not set to embrace her or be deflected from organising another vote on self-determination. But suddenly, Ruth Davidson looks a little less entitled and a bit more Scottish. Like 62 per cent of voters, her voice is also marginalised because she won’t knuckle down and praise the Lord or his new Promised Land. Snubbed by Westminster politicians and rejected by the blue rinse brigade who once so puzzlingly embraced her, Ruth Davidson has finally succeeded in becoming an underdog.

And there’s nothing Scots love better. I’d call that a bit of a result. Especially if your dream job always was First Minister of Scotland not Prime Minister of the UK.

Essentially, Ruth Davidson has been rejected by the English nationalists running the British Tory Party because her stubborn opposition to Boris Johnson seems to betray a dangerous return to type – born a whining Jock, always a whining Jock. In their eyes, she is one of us.

And that’s the biggest back-handed compliment an un-reconstructed bunch of Empire-glory-seeking, right-wing-recalcitrants could ever deliver to a Scots politician, of any hue. By deciding not to kowtow to the new London regime (after an initial wobble), Ruth Davidson appears a bit brave and principled (on this subject and this week at least), whilst Back Door Boris couldn’t stand up to a booing crowd after his meeting with Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House.

Compare and contrast.

Besides, where else are No voters going to go?

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Ruth Davidson still looks like the strongest unionist leader north of the border – arguably, stronger than before. Her clash with Boris reflected an awareness that “full Brexit steam ahead” could create just the bow wave needed to take independence over the line. She didn’t win that policy battle but she should now be free to plough a new relatively moderate, Scottish Conservative furrow. Except of course that she isn’t.

To quote the Bard; “Pleasures are like poppies spread; You seize the flower, it’s bloom is shed.”

For Ruth Davidson to benefit from any feelgood factor arising from her battle with Boris, she must finally grasp the thistle and endorse a breakaway Scottish party. That means conceding leadership rival Murdo Fraser was right all along, rocking the unsteady Tory boat still further and bolstering the SNP argument that Scotland’s political culture is too distinctive to operate within cross-border party structures. From there, it’s a mere hop and a skip towards the full constitutional argument for independence.

So far, she has insisted she won’t be going any of these extra miles. But the political damage has already been done. The less Scottish politics looks like British politics, the stronger the case for independence. Until now, that political difference has been most pronounced on the left. But a vital and wider sphere of detachment is now emerging. So the forthcoming battle for control of the Scottish Conservative Party will have a wider relevance.

Independence supporters might love to see the cocky Ms Davidson brought down to size, losing status and her own constituency seat at the next Holyrood election. But the clear saltire-blue currents she’s let rip over Brexit, distancing Scottish Tory opinion from the London mainstream, are probably more significant in the steady flow towards Yes.