Ruth Davidson never attended a formal meeting with her group of MPs at Westminster, as attempts to organise the Scottish Tories into a distinct group under the leadership of a close ally collapsed amid a “coup” attempt and divide-and-conquer tactics by government whips, it can be revealed.
Some members of the 13-strong Scottish Conservative group – the largest in 35 years – wanted to form a “Scottish DUP” after the 2017 election, but the bid was viewed by senior government figures as an attempt to pass information back to Davidson and exert leverage over Theresa May’s minority administration.
Davidson resigned as Scottish Conservative leader last week, citing the pressures of frontline politics on family life following the birth of her son Finn in October last year.
That has failed to dampen speculation that the decision was partly due to disagreements with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who began his premiership by sacking her closest ally, former
Scottish Secretary David Mundell, and curtailed debate on Brexit by announcing he would suspend parliament – the day before her resignation announcement.
In her statement, Davidson said she had “never sought to hide the conflict I have felt over Brexit”, but insisted she believes Johnson is committed to getting a deal rather than crashing out of the EU on 31 October.
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Interviews carried out for a forthcoming book on the Scottish Tories under Davidson reveal that despite speculation she would use her MPs to wield influence and secure a softer Brexit deal, she has not attended a scheduled meeting of the group at Westminster since the 2017 election.
Davidson has met her MPs at party events, but regular face-to-face contact at Westminster has been handled by her deputy, Jackson Carlaw, and her director of communications, Eddie Barnes. Party leaders from all other Scottish parties represented at Westminster – including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – have attended multiple meetings of their MPs.
Sources close to Davidson say it is in keeping with her leadership style, as she doesn’t normally attend Scottish Parliament group meetings. But the hands-off approach has been a source of concern among several of her MPs. One suggests that Davidson was “intimidated by Westminster and the fact that we can do our own thing,” while another said: “I’m a huge supporter of Ruth’s, but I think she should have gotten more involved.”
A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: “Anyone who thinks Ruth would be intimidated by Westminster, or anywhere else for that matter, clearly doesn’t know her very well.”
Davidson was seen as a leading power-broker at Westminster after the disastrous Conservative election campaign in 2017, which meant May could only cling to power thanks to gains in Scotland.
Reports following the election suggested that Scottish MPs would be “expected to vote as a bloc” at a time when Davidson was calling for an “open Brexit” that could win support across the Commons.
But despite holding the balance of power, debate among Scottish Tory MPs about whether to act as a distinct group was a source of “confusion and tension”, say Westminster sources.
One MP describes being “very conscious that we didn’t want to become a Scottish DUP,” while another admits: “I hoped we would become a Scottish DUP,” adding that a “phalanx” or “wedge” of 12 MPs could have extracted more concessions from ministers.
While the party has always ruled out separate whipping arrangements for its MPs, one says the group was issued with a “chamber rota”, telling them which debates to attend. “That might have worked at Holyrood, where business managers basically decide who speaks and everything is tightly scheduled, but it was ridiculous at Westminster,” the MP says.
There were also tensions over the use of a staff pool, and the issuing of joint press releases, both of which were phased out after around a year. “Some of the group felt things were going out in their name that they didn’t agree with,” one member says.
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Efforts to create a distinct Scottish group were also undermined by government whips, who feared the MPs’ intentions. A request for the 12 backbench Scottish Tories to have adjacent offices was turned down, and they were assigned to separate parts of the parliamentary estate. “I thought it was silly,” a senior Scottish Tory figure at Westminster says, but a Downing Street source admitted there was “concern” about how the group would behave.
Promotions to jobs as parliamentary aides were also used as a means to undermine Scottish Tory unity, members of the group claim. “The whips were very clever in picking off those who were vulnerable, to win their loyalty,” one MP says. “You can see by who it was that got promoted.” A Downing Street source says there was a concerted effort to bring Scots into government, to show the administration valued the Union.
Sources say the appointment of Davidson’s leadership campaign manager and former whip at Holyrood, John Lamont, as group convener led government whips to suspect he was acting as a “backchannel” to Edinburgh. “They saw him as being loyal to Davidson, and there was a belief that he was passing information back to Edinburgh,” an MP colleague says.
After the government failed to amend crucial Brexit legislation in the Commons in a row with the Scottish Government about a devolved “power grab”, tensions rose within the group over claims the MPs had been “misinformed” about the progress of intergovernmental talks.
“It became clear that what we were being told about what the whips’ office was saying, and what was actually going on, didn’t match up,” one MP says. Another MP says the EU Withdrawal Bill was “a wake-up call to some in the group about how much trust we could put in the whips’ office, and how much we should believe it when the government said something would definitely happen”.
It led to a tense clear-the-air meeting at the start of 2018 where the group was briefed directly by the chief whip Julian Smith. After hearing from him, Alister Jack – now the Secretary of State for Scotland – is understood to have turned to Lamont and said: “This contradicts what we were led to believe.”
A group of “malcontents” approached Scottish Secretary David Mundell to say they wanted to remove Lamont, but the coup bid failed after the Borders MP “did a John Major” and challenged colleagues to topple him.
But disagreement over how the group should be run continued, and for over a year, Scottish Tory MPs have not had a formal convener. Their meetings are now held in the Scotland Office, with the Scottish Secretary acting in an unofficial coordinating role.
The book details the group’s battles with Whitehall departments to secure changes to immigration policy, tax relief for Scottish industries, and greater UK government involvement in Scotland, including through direct investment in devolved areas.
“We’re like the Avengers – we assemble when we’re needed,” one Scottish Tory MP says.
A collection of essays on the Scottish Conservatives will be published by Edinburgh University Press in early 2020