Euan McColm: Best of enemies will thwart Davidson's ambition

Something almost unthinkable happened at the Scottish Parliament last week.

Ruth Davidson turned the Scottish Conservatives into Scotlands official opposition at Holyrood. Picture: Neil Hanna

The SNP and Scottish Labour called a brief halt to the hostilities that define their relationship. In order to vote together against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit legislation these great foes formed a powerful alliance.

The rejection by nationalist and Labour MSPs (and Liberal Democrat and Green ones, too) of the EU Withdrawal Bill might be little more than symbolic gesture – Holyrood has no power to prevent Brexit from taking place next year – but the sight of such sworn political enemies uniting so enthusiastically bears remarking upon.

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I believe, however, that such unlikely unity will soon become far more common.

One of the big stories in Scottish politics in recent years has been the remarkable success of Tory leader Ruth Davidson. Having taken charge of a party widely considered to be on the brink of irrelevance, Davidson now leads the second largest group of MSPs at Holyrood.

Labour were humiliatingly knocked into third place by Davidson’s resurgent Scottish Tory Party in the 2016 election. Following that achievement, the Scottish Conservative Leader announced her next ambition: it was her intention, she said, to become the next First Minister of Scotland. A Tory? Leading the Scottish Government? What are the chances of that?

Well, they are probably fairly slender, but then we could have said the same about her ambition to supplant Labour as the second party at Holyrood until very recently, couldn’t we? Sure, Davidson had better polling figures than either of her predecessors and, yes, she had the issue of opposition to a second independence around which to build a campaign, but until the results began coming in two years ago, the idea that the Tories could seriously mount any kind of Caledonian comeback seemed optimistic, to say the least.

With the issue of independence continuing to dominate Scottish politics, Davidson hopes her continued commitment to the endurance of the UK will pay even greater dividends, leaving her as leader of the largest party at Holyrood after the 2021 election.

She may be pitching a little high, there, but her opponents would be foolish to underestimate her. It is, if not likely, entirely possible that by playing again on her opposition to a second independence referendum, the Tory leader will further consolidate her support among the pro-UK majority that still exists in Scotland. The loss of a handful of rural seats to the Tories and urban constituencies to Scottish Labour could easily see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon lose her status as leader of the largest parliamentary group.

But there is a difference between being leader of the biggest party at Holyrood and being able to form a government.

The SNP may have proved, in 2011, that the Scottish Parliament’s voting system – designed to encourage cooperation and even formal coalition – could result in an overall majority for one party, but that remains a most unusual outcome. Not even Davidson’s most enthusiastic supporters would suggest she has it in her to lead the Scottish Tories to an overall majority. Instead, her best chance of obtaining the keys to Bute House would be to try – just as Alex Salmond did after his first Scottish parliamentary election victory – to form a minority government.

And this, chums, is the point at which Davidson’s dream will die.

Pragmatists – they do still exist – in both Scottish Labour and the SNP agree that they would work together to prevent the Tories taking power.

Recent years have seen the relationship between the nationalists and Labour deteriorate to new lows; mutual disdain developed into visceral hatred during the independence referendum campaign, when the accusation that Labour politicians were nothing more than “red Tories” became terribly fashionable. This charge helped the SNP win both Holyrood and Westminster seats in areas – Glasgow, for example – that were, until very recently, considered Labour strongholds.

Could the animosity between these two parties – both competing for what we might describe as the social democrat vote – really be overcome? In the name of preventing a Tory government at Holyrood it most certainly could.

As one SNP source put it, if the Conservative Party manages to leapfrog the nationalists in 2021, it will be up to Labour to decide whether it does nothing and lets Davidson into office or it supports the SNP, either formally or informally.

The SNP and Scottish Labour have previously worked together on a number of councils but the national narrative remains that they hold fundamentally different values. Further success for the Tories will only show how inaccurate that view is.

Ah, but what about the matter of a second independence referendum? Sturgeon has – kind of, sort of – promised her supporters that a second kick of the constitutional ball will soon take place. How would that sit with a political arrangement with Labour?

The scuppering of a second indyref would be Labour’s victory to claim, should it choose. In reality, an election result that meant the nationalists required Labour support to retain power would have already removed the pro-independence majority among MSPs.

By the time they were turning to Labour for help, the nationalists would have accepted the dream of a second referendum in the near future – perhaps even in the blink of an SNP generation – was over.

It is not only SNP and Labour politicians who see the prospect of their cooperation at Holyrood becoming increasingly likely. Tories, too, fear the only flaw in Davidson’s plan is that fact that her opponents are as one on their hatred of their party.

As one Conservative put it to me: “Would Labour let us in just to f*** up the SNP? Massive risk, that.”

Last week we saw the SNP and Scottish Labour in the unusual position of standing, shoulder-to-shoulder, against a common foe. This unlikely alliance should send the clearest message to Ruth Davidson that she is never going to be First Minister.