Euan McColm: Davidson finds herself on wrong side of Brexit

Ruth Davidson is out of step with those who increasingly wield power within the Conservative Party. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ruth Davidson is out of step with those who increasingly wield power within the Conservative Party. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Not so very long ago, the Conservatives were considered all but extinct in Scotland.

Both Labour and the SNP needed to do little more than invoke the name Margaret Thatcher in order to stir up anti-Tory sentiment; the job of any Scottish Conservative leader was the management of decline.

That was before Ruth Davidson collided with the referendum on Scottish independence.

The Scottish Conservative leader – whose first couple of years in charge were rocky indeed – successfully styled herself the leader of the opposition to a second independence referendum. So compelling was her promise to do everything in her power to prevent another vote on the UK constitution that Davidson’s – and, thus, her party’s – fortunes began to rise, for the first time in decades.

There were always Tory voters in Scotland, even in the years when the party struggled to win seats, but Davidson brought on board new supporters, people who shared her support for the maintenance of the UK while believing her to be a different kind of Tory.

And so when Davidson speaks at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham tomorrow, she can expect – yet again – to receive a warm welcome.

But I wonder whether her words will be as well received in the hall and in Scotland as they have been in previous years.

Davidson was a key figure in the Remain campaign during 2016’s EU referendum campaign. Now she is a Leaver. Circumstances demand as much. But she won’t have comforting words for the Tory activists whose demand for Brexit at any cost continues to undermine Prime Minister Theresa May.

Davidson will call for support for a deal as close as possible to the Chequers plan proposed by May. Many of those in the audience in Birmingham who previously considered Davidson a hero will, doubtless, feel she is out of touch, part of the “elite” determined to thwart the will of the people on Brexit.

And in Scotland, where Davidson has previously been on the winning side of the big political battle of the day, voters may question whether she is still the politician to deliver what they want.

Davidson was on the winning side of the 2014 referendum. This gave real weight to her opposition to a second independence referendum. The people have spoken, she insisted, and it’s time for the SNP to respect that and get on with the day job of governing from Holyrood.

But Davidson was on the losing side in 2016 and her explicitly stated position on respecting results prevents her from even entertaining the idea of a so-called “People’s Vote” on Brexit.

Fellow travellers on the left of the Conservative Party in England may feel free to add their support to cross-party calls for a referendum – perhaps including a Remain option – on the shape of Brexit, but Davidson simply cannot go there.

Davidson’s opposition to a second independence referendum chimed with the wishes of 55 per cent of Scots. But her politically necessary support for Brexit contrasts with the wishes of 62 per cent of voters north of the border.

Davidson had a simple but effective message on Scottish independence which chimed with the beliefs of the majority and paid dividends at the ballot box. But on Brexit – for the foreseeable future, the only constitutional game in town – she stands on the other side of the argument from the majority of Scots.

Ask anyone close to her how Davidson managed to persuade Scots voters to return to the Tories and they will answer that she has succeeded in changing the perception of her party. A young, working-class, gay woman, Davidson could not be more different than the popular caricature of Tories in Scotland as cold, distant, and cruel.

Davidson has no time for the Brexiteers on the right of her party; her contempt for Boris Johnson is well-known (anyone who saw them debate against each other during the 2016 campaign could be in no doubt about her feelings).

But despite all of this, she cannot walk on to the stage in Birmingham tomorrow and deliver a speech that supports the majority of Scots. Instead, whether she likes to or not (and I suspect not), she will be on the side of the sort of people who played their parts in making the Tory Party so very unpopular in Scotland for so very long.

Demand for a People’s Vote is growing. At Labour conference last week, leader Jeremy Corbyn – seemingly fully committed to Brexit – used the trusty shield of weasel words to leave “options open”. Meanwhile, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, while not (yet) campaigning for a second EU referendum has said she would not oppose one. These positions may shift as departure from the EU, scheduled to take place on March 29 next year, looms closer and warnings of the negative implications grow louder.

Corbyn, his branch manager in Scotland, Richard Leonard, Sturgeon – these politicians can get on the side of the majority of Scots who believe Brexit to be a mistake. Davidson will never be able to do so, no matter how strongly she may believe Brexit to be a mistake.

Davidson joined the Tories while David Cameron was leader, in the days when the party was widely considered to be on the centre right. She was part of a project, at the top of the party, to cement the Conservatives’ position on the centre ground.

Now, ideologically, Davidson is out of step with those who truly wield power in the party.

The hard Brexiteers, in cabinet and on the back benches, run the show now. These are not Davidson’s people.

Davidson – soon to step away from the frontline for a period of maternity leave – built her success on a simple political message that spoke directly to the majority of Scots. In doing so, she changed, to some extent, the perception of what a Tory could be.

How the Tory leader must long – as she dreams of one day becoming First Minister – to be able to stand with the majority of Scots on Brexit.

Ruth Davidson made the rules that prevent her from doing so.