Leader comment: Ruth Davidson risks guilt by association

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson. (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson. (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)
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On the face of things, Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson’s decision to join Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove in demanding the UK’s departure from the common fisheries policy after Brexit makes perfect sense.

Support for leaving the European Union ran high in fishing communities, with the prospect of regaining control of waters around Scotland the key factor. The Tories are already enjoying a resurgence in support in many of these areas; it’s perfectly natural that Ms Davidson should seek to build on that growth by establishing herself as the champion of the fishing industry.

But the alliance of Davidson and Gove, pragmatic though it may be, brings back into focus the political puzzle the Scottish Tory leader must solve if she is ever to move out of opposition and into power.

Since assuming the leadership of her party in 2011, Ms Davidson has done a remarkable job of reinvigorating a brand that many thought could not be saved.

The Conservative Party had become politically irrelevant in Scotland, seemingly existing only to give their opponents a target to kick. The arrival of Ms Davidson – energetic, working class, and socially liberal – was a declaration by Scottish Tories that they had changed, that they were not the right-wing ideologues of the – fairly recent – past but a centrist force, in touch with the aspirations of those who had previously voted for either Labour or the SNP.

If Ms Davidson is to build on this, then she must surely maintain – as best she can – the impression that she is not cut from the same cloth as Mr Gove or his fellow travellers on the Brexiteer right, such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Recently, three Scottish Tory MPs signed a letter to the Prime Minister in which a series of demands for a hard Brexit were made. A fourth Scottish Conservative failed to sign the letter but endorsed its contents.

If Ms Davidson is to realise her ambition of becoming the next First Minister of Scotland, she will have to win the votes of people who continue to reject the sort of conservatism epitomised by the party’s anti-EU wing. Ruth Davidson is, undoubtedly, a talented politician but unless she can – over the next three years – persuade voters that her party truly has changed, she will surely fail in her mission to form the next Scottish Government.