Paris Gourtsoyannis: Ruth and Boris steal the show at Tory conference

Theresa May is powerless to sack openly rebellious ministers, such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty Images
Theresa May is powerless to sack openly rebellious ministers, such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty Images
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The Scottish Conservatives leader is the only one picking up her party and looking after its future, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Judging by the reaction at their party conference in Manchester this week, there is one surefire way for the Tories to drag themselves out of the doldrums. They just need to clone Ruth Davidson.

The Scottish Conservative leader has been everywhere, dishing out tough love and positive energy to a party that badly needs it.

It’s been a long time that Davidson has drawn the admiration, even the love of the Tory faithful. Over the past few days, however, that feeling been different, altogether more intense and plaintive. Everywhere she goes at conference, Davidson’s following look at her the way the drought-afflicted gaze at the sky.

Just like the Labour conference last week was a wild celebration of an election victory that never happened, this one has been a wake for a defeat that hasn’t happened yet.

Conservatives gathered in Manchester know they might not be around much longer - that is to say, in power, not a reflection of the average age of delegates.

On the fringes of the conference, there is a recognition of the depth of the party’s problem, and ideas being offered to win some of the young voters that have deserted the Tories for Jeremy Corbyn. But at the centre, there is a hollow whistling sound.

This conference should be about Theresa May’s last stand, as her enemies circle. May is clinging on as tightly as she clung to Davidson’s hand at a Scottish Conservative reception on Sunday night, when she insisted that “we saved the union” despite the fact that she lost her majority.

Her conference speech tomorrow will be a plea for more time, and some insiders believe it will go a long way to deciding whether she gets to stay in Downing Street for the full 18 months until Brexit is completed or not.

But it is obvious in Manchester that whatever May’s appeal, her party has moved on. The Tory Alamo was breached long ago, and her Number 10 operation is already a dusty ruin in the desert. Theresa May is a Prime Minister in name only, and rather than hunting the Prime Minister, the big beasts of the Tory wilderness are stalking each other. David Davis was spotted doing the rounds of regional party receptions on Sunday night, making a quick exit when his boss appeared.

Despite her claims that she will hang on until the next election, May is powerless to sack openly rebellious ministers, something even Jeremy Corbyn at his weakest didn’t shy away from. Her attempt to energise the start of conference with a new policy announcement has fizzled - none of the young voters flooding to Labour will be convinced by a speech defending the free market and a tuition fee freeze to put £370 “in their pocket” that wasn’t there to begin with.

There are two instincts written their political DNA that the Tories, backed into a corner, are consumed by. Its problem is that those instincts, together, are fuelling the irreconcilable conflict within the party.

The first is the overwhelming desire to keep the left out. The only thing keeping May in power is the fear of a general election, which there is every chance Jeremy Corbyn could win. The problem is that the longer she remains as a vacuum in Downing Street, the greater the battle that will be fought around her, over Brexit and the broader direction of the party’s economic policy. That undermines the second Tory directive - maintaining party unity.

A poll of party members a few days before conference began laid bare the split personality of Tory members: topping the list of preferred successors was Boris Johnson, closely followed by Davidson. There is a certain overlap in their mould-breaking public personas - a belief that the right quip can iron out any inconsistency. Beyond that, they can’t stand each other, or each other’s politics. One comes from immense privilege and led the campaign for Brexit; the other is from a relatively modest background and fears leaving the EU could be a disaster.

Who can say what Boris Johnson’s ultimate aim is? Some claim he is tired of politics altogether, and wants to be sacked so he can return to more profitable column- and book-writing.

Others see a strategy to weaken May in preparation for a coup as soon as the hard work of Brexit has been completed. And then there are those who doubt the Foreign Secretary has any real plan at all.

Davidson is clearly frustrated at the drift and disarray at party HQ, and this week, she has had to step into the breach and deliver some home truths. Between the conference hall and high-profile fringe events, by the end of conference the Scottish Conservative leader will have addressed the party membership in Manchester five times.

The only time the main auditorium has been in danger of filling up was for her speech to delegates; at fringe events she has been mobbed for autographs and selfies.

If she wanted to stop giving pep talks from the sidelines, roll up her sleeves and get stuck in, she could. One theory proposed in Manchester is that a pro-EU Conservative MP - perhaps a grandee approaching retirement who would be content with a place in the House of Lords - could choose to step aside in the event of a leadership challenge and let Davidson come to the rescue of the party. Members and a good number of MPs would back her.

She has left the door open to a bid for Westminster seat, but not anytime soon - her priority remains the small task of not just detoxifying the Tories but making the electable as next Scottish Government.

But even if she doesn’t get directly involved in a leadership contest, Davidson may also be the only person who can stop Johnson from becoming Conservative leader, by throwing her weight behind a credible challenger like Amber Rudd.

It shouldn’t fall to her alone, but Davidson has it in her power to continue to continue her party’s rise in Scotland and save it in the rest of the UK. She only needs to find a way to be in two places at once.