Euan McColm: Ruth Davidson faces tough Tory test

Natural leader Ruth Davidson has a fight 'on her hands to move Tories forward. Picture: John Devlin
Natural leader Ruth Davidson has a fight 'on her hands to move Tories forward. Picture: John Devlin
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AS PRIME Minister David Cameron delivered his keynote speech to the ­Conservative Party conference on Wednesday, the television cameras cut away to his wife, ­Samantha, sitting among ­delegates.

It was run-of-the-mill stuff: the loyal political spouse beaming proudly and what have you. But what made this broadcasting cliché interesting was who was sitting beside Mrs Cameron.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson grinned as applause rang round the auditorium. It was no accident that Davidson had been seated beside Sam-Cam. Rather, it was confirmation of the very high regard in which the 35-year-old ex-BBC journalist is held by the Prime Minister.

From the stage, he described Davidson as a new star and those in the audience cheered their approval. It would be churlish to argue against Cameron’s take on his party’s Scottish leader. There is no doubt that, during the long referendum campaign, Davidson emerged as a politician of substance. It is not necessary to agree with her ideology to recognise this.

On her election as leader in 2011, Davidson brought much needed youth and vigour to a Scottish Tory party seemingly full of ageing duffers who dreamed of a fantasy past of family values and hanging.

There was, of course, a certain novelty value which Tory spinners were keen to play up. Thus, no newspaper profile of this new MSP was complete without a report of the fact that she is both lesbian and enjoys kickboxing. In a daring act of research, I googled the term “lesbian kickboxer” and can report that the first image that appears is one of Davidson kicking something in a gym.

But being a lesbian kickboxer can only get one so far in politics. The public demands even more.

And Davidson delivered with a string of first-class performances in the Holyrood debating chamber and a central role in the Better Together campaign. At times, when Scottish Labour seemed absent, Davidson remained a constant, energetic force.

Some commentators have said that Davidson has detoxifed the Conservatives in Scotland, that her leadership has shaken off the “nasty party” reputation.

This may be true but at the moment it is difficult to know whether the leader’s personal popularity will make a difference at election time. Throughout the referendum campaign, Davidson was told by voters: “I’d vote for you if you weren’t a Tory” and that doesn’t suggest a rush of support for her party just yet.

We have been here before with Davidson’s predecessor Annabel Goldie, a charming and witty woman who could work a room like a good ’un. But in 2011, Goldie’s Conservatives returned only 15 MSPs to Holyrood.

Davidson has some reasons to be optimistic. Having been an elected politician for little more than three years, she has the sort of profile that most MSPs can only dream about. She has identified a sizeable group of voters – more than 170,000 – who backed the SNP in previous Holyrood elections yet said No in the referendum. And, behind the scenes, she has been recruiting new candidates – younger, fresher and more socially liberal than some of those who currently surround her in the Scottish Parliament.

What we can say with certainty is that Davidson recognises the problems facing her party and has some plausible ideas about how those might be overcome.

But let’s go back to that moment during the Prime Minister’s speech, when Davidson was basking in praise. She may be, as Cameron said, a new star. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Davidson’s challenge of making the Scottish Tories a viable force again will be assisted by her colleagues south of the Border.

There may be a place in Scottish politics for a centre-right party to challenge the current ideological consensus but Davidson’s Westminster colleagues may get in her way.

Cameron’s speech on Wednesday involved the pulling of a few rabbits out of the hat.

His announcement that the threshold at which people would begin to pay tax was to rise by £2,000 to £12,500 was hard to criticise, even for those on the left.

An announcement that the top tax rate of 40 per cent would begin at £50,000 rather than the current £41,900 was more easily attacked.

Unreconstructed lefties got more excited than they should by this. Frustration at tax levels is not felt solely by the wealthy. The “aspirational” voters wooed by Labour in 1997 and the SNP in 2007 don’t particularly enjoy paying tax. Labour recognised this by introducing the 10p rate – abolished with catastrophic consequences on Gordon Brown’s watch – while the nationalists have tickled that particular sweet spot of “what’s mine is mine” with a council tax freeze that’s in its seventh year (while local services suffer).

But the plan for the top tax rate does play into a bigger story about the bad old Tories. Cameron’s announcement that he wants to scrap the Human Rights Act – keeping those meddling Europeans out of our business – really helps that story come together.

In acting to fend off a Ukip threat in England next year, the Prime Minister has taken a decision that plays into a nice, easy narrative about the same old Tories.

Davidson spoke at her party’s conference about the need for the Scottish Conservatives to occupy the centre ground. She is in favour of low tax but that is where any “right wing” credentials would appear to end.

What good, though, a new socially liberal face of centrist politics for the Tories in Scotland when her colleagues in England look to be lurching right?

Davidson and Cameron are close. He was her preferred choice for the job and they get on extremely well. That won’t matter one whit if Davidson is characterised as being part of a new hardline project.

Ruth Davidson is one of the most capable politicians on the Scottish scene. She is a natural. Now she has to prove she can move the Scottish party on from its unpopular past despite the actions of her colleagues at Westminster. Tough gig. «

• Twitter: @euanmccolm