Tom Peterkin: Ruth Davidson delivers on the big occasion

The Scottish Conservative leader showed her mettle in the Great Debate against Boris Johnson, says Tom Peterkin

Ruth Davidsons ability to shine when the stakes are high was built on debating skills, which were forged in the white heat of the Scottish referendum. Picture: PA
Ruth Davidsons ability to shine when the stakes are high was built on debating skills, which were forged in the white heat of the Scottish referendum. Picture: PA

Scotland may be conspicuously absent from the European Football Championships, but at least there has been the consolation of seeing a Scot putting in a decent performance at Wembley.

The disappointing aspect for the Tartan Army is that the Scot turning on the style at the home of English football was a politician rather than a footballer. The occasion was a “blue on blue” EU debate rather than a match against the Auld Enemy.

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When the votes are finally counted it will be a matter for conjecture whether Ruth Davidson’s joust with Boris Johnson at the SSE Arena at Wembley had any bearing on the result of today’s poll.

But what can be said with greater confidence is that the personal stock of the Scottish Conservative has never been higher following her convincing appearance in front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.

Of course, it is not the first time that a Scottish politician has made a big impression when catapulted from Holyrood on to the wider UK stage. Nicola Sturgeon made a splash by outshining Ed Miliband and others during a televised debate ahead of last year’s General Election.

In many ways Scottish politicians have been at an advantage during this EU referendum. Unlike their English and Welsh counterparts they have had recent experience of a single issue poll which polarises opinion passionately.

Davidson will have done a lot of preparation before taking on the former London Mayor on the BBC. But the reality is that her ability to shine when the stakes are high was built on debating skills, which were forged in the white heat of the Scottish referendum.

Although a relatively youthful politician, Davidson is more of a veteran of this kind of set piece event than her colleagues and rivals on the BBC programme. Her experience – which is combined with a flair for these kinds of occasions – showed.

While Johnson received a rapturous reception from the Leave element in the crowd, Davidson introduced herself as a highly accomplished performer to a UK audience.

Highlights included her attack on a claim by Leave’s Andrea Leadsom that 60 per cent of UK laws were made in Europe.

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It was a “blatant untruth”, said Davidson before coming up with some statistics of her own. The Scottish Conservative leader quoted the House of Commons library which suggested the true figure was 13 per cent.

The country, Davidson said, was being “asked to make a decision on a lie”. “That’s not good enough. You deserve the truth,” she thundered as the audience’s cheers rose.

Seasoned observers at Holyrood are familiar with Davidson’s “back story” - her previous career as a broadcast journalist and her service in the Territorial Army.

Until her appearance on the BBC’s “Great Debate” on Tuesday night, the wider UK viewing public knew next to nothing about her past. Davidson soon ensured they did.

As she spoke of the values of co-operation, her claim that she had never felt prouder to be British than when witnessing the work done by the Army in Kosovo when she was there as a reporter would have gone down well with those of a certain sensibility.

Similarly, slipping in the fact that her Kosovo experience persuaded her to join the TA was a cute touch.

“I think I am the only one on this panel to have worn the Queen’s uniform,” Davidson said – a remark which showed that she is as adept at selling herself as selling the Remain campaign.

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It was a performance that had pundits dishing out the five star reviews and the twitterati speculating about her being parachuted south of the Border to sort out the UK Conservatives.

Against that background, it is easy to forget that Davidson has not always had it her own way. Her election as Scottish Tory leader saw her inherit a deeply divided party, which was split over whether to retain its ties to London or go down the Murdo Fraser route of cutting all links to the UK party.

In those pre-indyref days, Davidson struggled to unite the Scottish Conservatives. As a political novice, she fared badly against Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions.

She had to grow into the job under the glare of the public eye and amid whisperings from some colleagues who remained unconvinced that she was someone capable of leading the Scottish Tories back from the brink of extinction.

To her credit, she soldiered on. It was during the 2014 independence referendum that she really began to turn this around. In this feverish atmosphere, she shone. With her broadcast journalistic experience, it had always been assumed she would do well in front of the cameras and microphones and so it proved. Davidson was a tower of strength where more experienced operators on the Better Together side were posted missing. Since then, she has delivered an excellent result at the Scottish elections – silencing the doubters on her own side.

Of course, she is not everyone’s cup of tea. The antipathy towards her from those in the audience of a Brexit persuasion could be felt. Indeed, perhaps the most depressing thing about the “Great Debate” were the obvious and deep-rooted divisions amongst the 6,000 spectators.

Davidson may have got the Scottish Tories behind her, but one suspects not even she will be able to heal the wounds inflicted on her party and the country whatever emerges over the next few hours.