Paris Gourtsoyannis: Ruth Davidson is picking her Brexit battles

A hard Brexit poses questions for the Scottish Tory leader as well as the SNP, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.

Ruth Davidson is putting the squeeze on Nicola Sturgeon, writes Paris.  Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Ruth Davidson is putting the squeeze on Nicola Sturgeon, writes Paris.  Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Ruth Davidson is putting the squeeze on Nicola Sturgeon, writes Paris. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images)

A word of advice for Conservative conference novices: if you ever see Ruth Davidson striding in your direction, get out of the way.

Not because the Scottish Tory leader is likely to bowl you over – she’d never do that – but because wherever she goes in Birmingham, a pack of photographers and selfie-takers is never far behind.

They’ll trample you in an instant.

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Ruth Davidson was already a big draw before she led the Scottish Tories to an unlikely second place finish in this year’s Scottish elections. N

ow she’s sharing the top of the bill: the Scottish Tory leader will introduce Theresa May when she gives her conference-closing speech tomorrow.

What a contrast with Kezia Dugdale’s experience at the Labour conference in Liverpool the previous week – all her battles were with her own party.

Ms Davidson’s buoyant status in the party was reflected in her speech on the first day of conference in which she effectively launched a campaign to become First Minister just six months after the last election.

She took the SNP to task, telling Nicola Sturgeon to put a stop to her “megaphone diplomacy” over Brexit and get down to the proper work of improving schools and investing in the NHS.

“Instead of picking fights with the UK government, why not just pick up the phone a bit more often and she might find that you agree about some things?” Ms Davidson said.

It was standing room only to hear the Scottish Conservative leader, and the crowd lapped up her commitment to taking her party into government at Holyrood within five years. On Sunday evening, even the most clean-living Scottish Tories in Birmingham were toasting what was a very good day for their leader.

Between them, the Tories’ top women are putting the squeeze on Ms Sturgeon, and the First Minister’s room for manoeuvre on a second independence referendum is rapidly running out.

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If there was anyone looking for a fight on Sunday it was Ms May, who attacked the SNP as “divisive nationalists” in her speech confirming the timing of Article 50.

It was, by some accounts, a technical announcement of something that had already been hinted at – that Article 50 would be triggered at the start of 2017.

But by putting an end to the speculation that Article 50 could be delayed, perhaps until after elections in France and Germany, Theresa May was sending a clear signal: she already knows what type of Brexit she wants.

We won’t be told, of course, because giving a “running commentary” might show the UK’s hand before negotiations begin, and the finer details of the negotiating strategy will be hammered out over the next six months.

But if the Prime Minister was willing to start the clock, it’s because she knows what she wants to get from negotiations, and even though the mechanism for engagement between the UK and Scottish governments on Brexit hasn’t been confirmed yet, Mrs May is hardly going to change her mind on the fundamentals.

Despite her protests that there is “no such thing as a choice between ‘soft Brexit’ and ‘hard Brexit’”, all the signs are that the UK will be leaving the single market and the customs union, putting an end to free movement and applying tough new restrictions on EU migration.

“We will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom,” she said, to roars from assembled Tory activists who did not sound like a party that campaigned to stay in the EU four months ago. Brexit will be on Mrs May’s terms.

That heaps even more pressure on Nicola Sturgeon, who now not only has to convince a majority of Scots that a second referendum should take place, and that they should back it, but probably has to do so before the UK slams the door on the way out of the EU in spring 2019.

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Since the referendum result, Nicola Sturgeon has subtly reshaped her position on what would be her trigger for a second independence referendum, but by any standard the UK government has now met that threshold. Indeed, it has sometimes seemed as if UK ministers were stretching for it.

Every one of the First Minister’s retreating red lines has so far been crossed.

The impression that she has been reduced to a spectator wasn’t diminished by the series of tweets she rattled off on Sunday accusing Mrs May of “going out of her way to say Scotland’s voice and interests don’t matter”.

Like the rest of the country sitting in front of the TV in their robe and slippers, she was watching it unfold.

The balancing act Ms Sturgeon has to perform in two weeks at her own party’s conference, keeping indy-sceptics and fundamentalists within the SNP happy while also speaking to the nation, seems to get more precarious with every passing day.

But there could also be a problem for the unassailable Scottish Conservative leader, who said almost as loudly after the EU referendum that she wanted to protect Scotland’s place in the single market and its ability to attract European workers.

She says she still holds those views, but there is no chance of her picking a fight with the Prime Minister over tariff-free trade.

Asked about it repeatedly in Birmingham, Ms Davidson seemed to suggest the kind of Brexit she thinks is best for Scotland might still be possible, saying that “all of these things are going to come out in the negotiation.” However, that position is already uncomfortable to cling to and will only get more precarious over the next six months.

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No amount of wishing will change the result of the EU referendum, and at this stage even independence would come too late to stop Scotland from leaving with the rest of the UK.

But Scotland did vote to remain, and does need immigrants more than the rest of the UK. If that isn’t reflected in the eventual Brexit deal, the merits of picking a fight may need to be re-examined.