Insight: Bake Off and the irresistible rise of Ruth Davidson

Susan Calman
Susan Calman
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Ruth Davidson and The Great British Bake Off are the perfect match: like scones and clotted cream or apple pie and custard, they play to each other’s strengths. The Scottish Tory leader exudes a seaside sauciness: l’esprit de Skegness, if you like. You can already imagine her waving a rolling pin provocatively in the direction of Sandi Toksvig or bemoaning her flaccid doughballs.

The programme, meanwhile, promotes a palatable, Danny Boyle-style version of British identity that suits her purposes. More Victoria sponges and multi-cultural street parties than welfare reforms and immigrant-baiting, it fits in with Davidson’s conception of herself as a different, softer kind of Conservative. It is hard to see a woman in a floury pinny as a latter-day Marie Antoinette, even if she is saying: “Let them eat cake.” It’s hard to take umbrage at a Union Jack when it’s covered in fondant icing.

Davidson serves in a sweet shop while campaigning. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Davidson serves in a sweet shop while campaigning. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Davidson has been courting a spot on a prime-time TV show for some time. She has already appeared, to minor acclaim, on Have I Got News For You and the GBBO spin-off An Extra Slice. This time last year, she had her heart set on Strictly Come Dancing; she said she’d love to don a spangled outfit and a spray tan and was quick to tweet her congratulations when comedian Susan Calman (left) announced she was to be a contestant on the current show.

But a one-off Celebrity GBBO gives her the ideal platform: both to raise money for her chosen charity, Stand Up To Cancer, and to broaden her appeal in the rest of the UK. It is this potential to heighten her profile outside Scotland that is causing some political reporters’ antennae to twitch. Davidson has said time and again that she has no desire to move to London, so much so, that questions about possible Westminster ambitions are now greeted by those around her with reactions ranging from a heavy sigh to downright grumpiness.

And yet, down south, her popularity continues to grow. Davidson’s showstopper appearance at the party conference was said to have lifted flagging spirits. And the way she has turned the Tories’ fortunes around in Scotland is regarded by some as little short of a miracle. No wonder a YouGov poll of Conservative members showed she was second favourite after Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May as leader. To a party in the grip of a nervous breakdown, she must look like a bottle of Prozac. Why wouldn’t they turn to her for relief?

There would be many hurdles to overcome. As Davidson is not an MP, someone would have to be persuaded to relinquish their safe seat for the greater good of the party. But if, after Harold Macmillan was taken ill in 1963, Alec Douglas-Home could be plucked from the House of Lords and parachuted into Kinross and Western Perthshire, there’s surely no reason the viewers of next month’s Celebrity GBBO couldn’t be looking at the next prime minister.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. First of all, Davidson would have to want the position (and – however unlikely it sounds – she insists her ambition is to be first minister of Scotland); then she would have to be prepared to take an enormous gamble – abandoning the Tory project in Scotland for a shot at a leadership election she might not win. And to what end? Navigating the UK through the nightmare that is Brexit is no-one’s idea of a good time.

“I can understand why there’s a clamour for this because there’s a bit of desperation in London and they see somebody up here who is successful and very normal, which is exactly what the Tory party needs,” says Andy Maciver, director of PR agency Message Matters and a former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives. “But at some point those in London are going to have to say: ‘Hold on, why on earth would this person want to swap an extremely successful situation up here – where her stock is high and she is seen as a person of substance across the political spectrum – to walk into Downing Street? It’s the worst thing she could possibly do if she wants to have a long and healthy political career.”

Given Davidson – a “working class, lesbian kick-boxer”, to quote the tabloids – is cut from very different cloth to most of those who have risen within the party in recent years, it is worth analysing her appeal to party members.

Partly it lies in that very difference. As political commentator David Torrance points out, she is everything Theresa May isn’t: she can make people laugh, come up with a line in an interview, and be mischievous.

Critics may deride her endless photo stunts as vacuous, but she makes them and her Twitter account work in her favour, projecting an image of herself as bubbly and benign. Occasionally, she comes up with something a bit left-field and likely to set tongues wagging, like posting an image of Gillian Anderson in stilettos and silk stockings before heading off on a week’s holiday.

Davidson, then, has maverick tendencies without being a liability. She has Boris Johnson’s bumptious joviality, but is unlikely ever to recite Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay while visiting a sacred Buddhist site. She has Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ability to put bums on seats, but has never denounced abortion while owning a company that benefits directly from the sale of the morning after pill.

More disconcertingly, Davidson answers some Tories’ desire to be dominated. “You have to remember that before the general election some MPs were calling Theresa May ‘mother’,” says one Tory insider. “The party does like its strong women.” Davidson caters to this predilection with pictures of herself sitting astride a tank. To those outside the party, the idea she would tell members to “man up a bit” might seem outrageous. But really she’s just playing to an audience that likes to be bullied.

To all that, we must add her Westminster colleagues’ fascination with her success north of the border. “To some in London, Scotland is – to put it in Game Of Thrones terms – ‘Beyond the Wall’ ,” says another senior Tory figure. “The idea that in three elections – Holyrood, local and general – she could persuade so many people to put a cross in the Conservative box fills them with awe.”

You might have thought the fact Davidson was a vocal Remainer would put her at a disadvantage, but, Torrance says, the current dichotomy is less between Leavers and Remainers, and more between realistic leavers and the “knuckleheads” who think no deal is better than a bad deal.

“Ruth would presumably see herself on the realistic wing and there is some currency in being a bit more realistic about these things,” he adds.

“The Conservative Party was successful for so long because it has this keen appetite for power and that always made it quite pragmatic and sensible. After the war, it became all centrist and Keynesian. Thatcher obviously took it in a slightly different direction and now it’s a mishmash of things, but a bit like the SNP, it tends to position itself where it thinks centrist political opinion is because that’s where you win elections. At the moment, it seems to have lost that instinct because Brexit has warped its judgment, but there will come a point when it will have to start thinking about it again and Ruth must look quite appealing in that context.”

Despite this, none of the people I spoke to, inside or outside the party, thought there was the slightest chance of Davidson making a move away from Scotland until after the Holyrood elections in 2021.

She is said to believe the Scottish Tories can win the next Holyrood election – a feat that is only feasible (if it is feasible at all) with her at the helm. All the progress that has been made so far has been based on the successful marketing of Brand Ruth and by persuading voters that she embodies different values to those espoused by her Westminster counterparts.

Maciver agrees that Davidson’s priority is to become first minister. But is that achievable? “I don’t know. Before the referendum I wouldn’t have believed it would be possible to do as well as she has,” he says. “I don’t think we will know until 2021. But I am sure Ruth wants to find out, so I think there’s zero chance of her being tempted away before then.”

The other factor militating against Davidson becoming leader is that it would be a logistical minefield. In order to stand, she would have to find someone willing to give up their seat and a Conservative association that didn’t mind her being imposed on them.

There has been some suggestion fellow Remainer Kenneth Clarke might be willing to stand down from his Rushcliffe constituency, but given he has only just been re-elected this seems unlikely. Torrance believes the “optics” would, in any case, be better if she had a Scottish seat. With the number of Tory MPs rising from one to 13 at the last election, this is a more realistic proposition than it would have been a year ago. And there are some, no doubt, who would be happy if MP for Moray, Douglas Ross went back to refereeing full-time. But persuading someone to resign just four months into their new job is a tall order.

“Even if it were possible, you could hardly do it while May was still in post because it would look so obvious,” says Torrance. “With the best will in the world, I don’t see how you could pull that off.”

Still, let’s say for argument’s sake, all those obstacles were overcome: what then? Davidson would have to fight a leadership election in which Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd would probably stand. There is every possibility, she would be squeezed out, which would mean she had sacrificed her position in Scotland for naught. “Ruth is not stupid,” Torrance says. “She will have thought through all these scenarios and concluded that the idea is – as she put it herself in Tim Shipman’s book – preposterous.”

If an immediate challenge is not on the cards, what about post-2021? Of course, if Davidson does become first minister, she will be busy doing “the day job”. If her party has bombed, then her star will have faded. But what if she does well, but not quite well enough? Could she set her sights on London then? If Brexit is indeed a disaster, wouldn’t she be the ideal candidate to pick up the pieces?

Again Torrance is sceptical. “For that to happen, there would have to be a single critical moment, but I’m not sure that’s how Brexit will pan out. It will be messy and terrible, but it will be an incremental, slow-burning thing.” He believes that by 2021 the moment will have passed: the pyscho-drama will be over, a new leader will be in place and there will be no vacancy.

Of course, if there is one thing the last couple of years has taught us, it is that it is foolish to try to forecast what politics will look like in four weeks, never mind four years.

“If you think about the amount of water passing under the bridge between now and then, you can see how impossible it is to make a prediction,” says Maciver. “You will have Brexit; it is not impossible you will have another general election, a Scottish election, a new leader of Scottish Labour, who will take the party in a particular direction, which in turn will impact on the Tory vote. And who knows what will have happened within Labour at national level?

“The Tory party at national level may not even exist in 2021 – there are so many variables.”

All this being so, why is Davidson doing Celebrity GBBO? To raise money for charity? Undoubtedly. To reach a centre left audience that is not her natural demographic? Probably. But also because it is likely to be a laugh. And Davidson is always up for a laugh.

As she kneads her dough, rumours will continue to ferment. But, as Torrance points out, in Conservative Party history the number of column inches devoted to speculating about a particular figure becoming prime minister tends to be in inverse proportion to the chances of it happening. “I am thinking about people like Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, where there were screeds and screeds of articles like the one you are writing and it never happened, whereas the people who do become prime minister – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May – they were being spoken about, but not nearly to the same degree. I have the feeling the same will be true of Ruth.”

The title of “star baker” may be within Davidson’s grasp. But it looks as if it will fall to someone else to rescue the party from its Eton Mess.