The Scottish Conservative leader has been called the Tory messiah, but she doesn’t have to walk on water to get to Number 10, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Anyone who thinks the obsession with Ruth Davidson among Westminster Tories might wane should look back at the newspapers over the past week.
The Scottish Conservative leader was described by one cabinet-level source quoted in a national newspaper as “the messiah”. Salvation for the Conservative Party is at hand, as long as she can be convinced to come down to London.
Elsewhere, more restrained commentators claimed Davidson has “got it all” and played up the idea of a “dream ticket” that would see the Holyrood opposition leader join forces with Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
The plan reportedly involves the Brexiteer backstabber getting rid of Theresa May and keeping Downing Street warm for a few years while getting on with leaving the EU, before Davidson can act as the nation’s healer.
Such suggestions are laughed off by the Scottish Tory leader without ever really being ruled out, and there remains an outlandish-if-plausible air to the rumours and innuendo.
But how would it work? How could Davidson fulfill her pledge to lead her party into the next Scottish election, get a good result, and then take off for London? Could she would she get into Westminster, let alone Downing Street? Just how far can she go?
Her first hurdle is winning, because so much of the energy she brings to a downtrodden Conservative party comes from victory.
Davidson has so far gotten by on her personal brand and her Unionism. She will eventually need some policies. This will be tricky, as party sources admit that many of the things the Scottish Tories spent so long opposing are actually quite popular, even among their own supporters.
Their own internal polling has told them that middle-class Conservative voters quite like the SNP’s universal giveaways, which is why the party came out in support of free prescriptions ahead of last year’s general election.
Free university tuition is another area where the party knows it can’t go into another election simply promising to take without giving. Davidson might consider one off-the-shelf solution to that particular problem. Last year, the Welsh Government accepted the recommendations of a major review of tuition fee and student support policy. The review was conducted by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the outgoing principal of Aberdeen University. The Diamond Review effectively flipped the policy for financial support, replacing loans for living costs with means-tested grants of up to £10,000, while tuition fees will now be covered by loans. Under the scheme, students from families with average earnings get grants worth £8,000 per year – four times the maximum bursary available in Scotland.
The electoral mechanics are impossible to predict, but a scenario where Davidson’s Tories are the largest party by the slimmest of margins isn’t out of the question. In the Scottish Parliament vote to pick a First Minister, if the Tories were the largest party, it would be difficult to argue that a coalition involving the SNP should gazump them. It has been speculated that Labour would vote to block a Conservative government, even if it meant returning an SNP First Minister, but one senior Tory MSP disagrees.
“They would have to abstain,” he says, warning of a backlash from Unionist voters. “They wouldn’t dare do that the year before a general election.” If Davidson was blocked from Bute House, though, another senior Tory source at Westminster suggests it would be “perfect” outcome – because it would set her free. At least two (very) senior Remain-supporting Tory MPs are said to be willing to step aside so Davidson can contest a by-election in a safe seat. One or two of the Scottish Tory group at Westminster whose victories came as a surprise in 2017 may also stand down after serving for a few years.
There is no reason that couldn’t be engineered ahead of both a leadership contest and a general election in 2022 – or later, if a collapse in the Brexit process forces another snap vote between now and March 2019.
The real challenge for Davidson will be sustaining her popularity over three turbulent years when the UK will exit the EU and Scotland could see the start of another independence campaign. The route she has to take, however, may be clearer than many think.