Euan McColm: Brexit letter fritters away Davidson's capital

Perhaps Ruth Davidson's greatest achievement since becoming leader of the Scottish Tories in 2011 has been her success in persuading a substantial number of voters that hers is a different kind of Conservative Party.
Ruth Davidson was pivotal in shoring up Theresa Mays leadership after a bruising general election. Picture: 
Jeff J Mitchell/GettyRuth Davidson was pivotal in shoring up Theresa Mays leadership after a bruising general election. Picture: 
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Ruth Davidson was pivotal in shoring up Theresa Mays leadership after a bruising general election. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

In stark contrast with Scottish Labour, which has struggled since the dawn of devolution to convince that it is not run from London as a branch office, Davidson’s Tories have appeared – usefully – detached from the UK party.

A pragmatic, pro-Europe, centre-right politician, Davidson is seen as her own woman and her party is considered to be in her image. This is a perception the Scottish Tories are keen to foster. Candidates can expect to see her name and smiling coupon all over their election leaflets; they are not simply standing for the Scottish Conservatives, they are standing for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives.

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Davidson has greatly enhanced the idea of her party as somehow separate from the UK Conservatives by contradicting and even clashing with colleagues at Westminster. During the EU referendum campaign in 2016, a televised debate with Brexiteer and now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saw her treat him with contempt. The message was twofold – first, Davidson was in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, and second, she was nothing like the privileged ex-public-schoolboys, epitomised by Johnson, who continue to dominate the UK party.

Though being on the losing side of the referendum hurt Davidson, she emerged from the campaign with considerable political capital. Her willingness to immediately spend that capital in the aftermath of the referendum, stepping on to the UK stage to attempt to direct Brexit to the softest conclusion while her MP colleagues devoted their efforts to plotting against each other in the course of electing a new leader, spoke to Davidson’s confidence.

And she was right to feel confident. In last year’s general election, the Scottish Conservatives returned 13 MPs, a marked improvement on its previous tally of one. What’s more, the party took down two SNP giants, Alex Salmond and former deputy leader Angus Robertson.

Davidson’s success in Scotland spared Prime Minister Theresa May even greater humiliation in an election that saw her lose her party’s majority, and so Davidson was entitled to have her say. On Brexit, she insisted that her MPs would prioritise the single market over the issue of immigration.

The message was clear, Davidson rejected the sort of no-deal Brexit favoured by the Europhobic ideologues on the Tory right.

Last week, three of Davidson’s Scottish Tory MPs signed a letter from pro-Brexit members to the Prime Minister calling on the UK to make a clean break with the EU. Forget any notion of a soft Brexit, of any compromise, these MPs insist the UK must gain full regulatory autonomy after Brexit.

MPs Alister Jack, Stephen Kerr and Colin Clark are among 62 signatories to the letter sent by the European Research Group of Tory backbenchers. A fourth Scottish Tory MP, Ross Thomson, later said he backed the letter but that his name was not included because of an administrative error.

To add insult to injury, not only are these Tory MPs taking a defiantly different position to the one adopted by Davidson, they are aligning themselves with the extreme right of their party. The European Research Group is headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the archetype of the sort of Tory that made the party all but unelectable in Scotland for years.

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Davidson would be justified in feeling that not only are these MPs treacherous, they are bloody ungrateful, too. After all, they were elected on the back of her success in repositioning the Scottish Tories in the centre ground of Scottish politics. Jack, Kerr, Clark and Thomson may be acting out of firmly held principle but they’ve done their party no favours. They’re just the same old Tories, aren’t they?

Asked by BBC Scotland whether she backed the letter, she said only that her MPs and MSPs stood behind the Prime Minister in helping her negotiate the best Brexit for the country. And then the normally talkative politician walked off without answering any further questions. Of course she doesn’t support the letter.

After Davidson led the Scottish Tories past the Labour Party in 2015 to become the second largest party at Holyrood, she announced a loftier ambition. She wanted to be the next First Minister.

As shots go, that’s a long one, but it was certainly the case that Davidson had significantly improved her party’s fortunes, vastly increasing the numbers of its elected representatives. Was it possible that a Tory could really replace Nicola Sturgeon?

For this to happen it would not be enough for Davidson to rely on the pro-UK vote from those seduced by her opposition to a second independence referendum, she would also have to win the votes of “middle Scotland” voters who continue to back the SNP in government, even if they don’t necessarily support independence.

If even a fraction of those voters are persuadable, they will not be won over by a Tory party personified by the likes Jacob Rees-Mogg, will they?

Davidson has seemed less sure-footed on the subject of the EU in recent weeks. After very public attempts to influence Brexit, she now adopts a “we’re behind the PM” line that hardly inspires.

When she became Scottish Conservative Party leader, Davidson set herself the considerable task of reshaping it. She spoke of liberal values, espousing a small “c” conservatism that was clearly more palatable to voters than the more ideological version of old.

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But can the Conservative Party really change? Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party is supposed to be open-minded, pro-European, and – crucially, with the next Holyrood election in mind – it should be moving into the centre ground now occupied by the SNP.

The presence in her party of a faction of right-wing Rees-Mogg acolytes is the last thing she needs if she’s ever to achieve her objective of winning power.