Ruth Davidson on campaigning and Tory turnarounds

IN THE first of a new series in the run-up to the General Election, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson talks tactics, Tory turnarounds and tiredness on the campaign trail

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Davidson chooses her own flavour (rum and raisin, “I can have that, I’m not driving”), she pays for it with money from her own pocket (buying one for Conservative MP David Mundell too) and then she eats it. Just 
eats it.

The only political aspect to it is that as she does so, she chats to passersby, journalists and eager beaver campaigners. The only time she relinquishes her cone is to do a piece to camera for the local news. As soon as she’s made her spiel about the economic plan working, and more jobs in Scotland and the fact that the Scottish Tories are working hard for every vote they can get at this upcoming General Election, she takes the cone back and promptly finishes it.

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Please note, Westminster politicians, when you’re next considering a bacon roll or a pasty, this is how it should be done.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson chooses her ice cream with David Mundell. Picture: Ian Georgeson

To be honest, my expectation was that Davidson might be a bit punchy. Two major debates at the start of the week, followed by two more long days of campaigning. “Do you know what it is?” she says when I mention fatigue. “I’ve never been one for sitting behind a desk. Even when I was a hack [Davidson worked for the BBC before her career in politics], I preferred to be out on stories.

“A campaign is all about getting your message across and telling people what you’re about and asking them to give you their trust and their vote, which is actually quite a big thing to ask for. If you can’t enjoy that then you shouldn’t be doing the job.” She laughs. “It’s good fun.”

A couple walk past us on our sunny bench. The woman pauses. “Good luck,” she says to Davidson. “Thank you very much,” she replies. “It’s good to meet you. Are you from Biggar or are you here visiting today?” They’re locals. They both smile, but there’s not much more chat. Davidson seamlessly fills the space. Compliments about local shops, an ice cream recommendation, a wee bit chat about the weather. “All the best,” says the woman as they walk on. “Thank you,” says Davidson, “we’re working hard.”

And the truth is, they’re going to have to. Davidson is keen to point out that the Scottish Tories are not the spent force that they were 20 years ago. When she ran for the leadership back in 2011, she didn’t promise a miracle but instead stated she was in this for the long haul. It was quite a claim for someone who had only been an MSP for six months.

At ease with an icecream cone while campaigning in Biggar. Picture: Ian Georgeson

But Davidson knew that transforming her party in Scotland – and giving them a chance of more than a single MP and 15 MSPs out of 128 in 
Holyrood – was a long-term task, a 10-year project she reckons. She’s three-and-a-half years into that now.

“Sometimes change can be difficult, it can be challenging,” she says, “but the support I’ve had from people who realised that we as a party had to change has been phenomenal.”

And Davidson is making changes. More than two-thirds of the candidates standing at this election have never stood before. She reckons, in terms of people coming up through the ranks and those at the other end of their careers nearing retirement, that will mean that at the next Scottish Parliament election the face of the Scottish Conservative Party will look more like the Scotland they want to represent.

AND as for Davidson herself being “the acceptable face of the Scottish Conservatives”, she laughs. “They used to say that about Annabel,” she quips.

She won’t make predictions about how her party will do on 7 May but she is confident that their vote share will increase. She reminds me that they got one in six votes last time out, even if they only got one in 60 seats. “I think people would be surprised to hear that we can get about half a million votes across Scotland because they’ve heard too many panda jokes, but it’s true.”

The real measure of her success though will be not on 7 May but at the Scottish Parliament elections next year. “I want a strong bloc in the Scottish Parliament so that I can do things with it and so that I can have an influence on Scottish policy and make a difference.”

While seats are hard to come by, what Davidson has by the bucketload is warmth and charm. She strikes a chord with regular voters that seems conspicuously absent from the efforts of her colleagues south of the Border. “I’ve always thought that politics would be a lot better if people said what they meant, told people what they wanted to do, why they wanted to do it, what they thought the outcome would be and then let them decide for themselves,” she says. “I’m not a big fan of the ‘politician’s’ answer of trying to be clever and cutesy and work round stuff, particularly in debates.”

WHAT Davidson relishes is toe to toe combat, a “square go”. “That’s what elections should be about,” she says. “It should be a clash of ideas. It shouldn’t be about sophistry or soundbites. I’m not really someone who uses soundbites. I don’t like them.” She’s got a bet with her press office who keep writing the phrases into her briefings. She mimics looking through pages and booms “no, no, no”. “I’m sure it’s all been focus-grouped to the ends of the earth and back but basically people ask you what you’re going to do for them, you tell them and tell them why it’s important. There you go. Job done.”

As to what her Westminster colleagues make of all this straight talking, no nonsense approach and how they are faring, my guess is a few have considered calling for some tips and plenty of others will be panicking. Davidson, for her part, seems resolutely calm. “I am in charge of the campaign in Scotland. The buck stops with me and that’s fine because I want that responsibility. We’re doing things differently in Scotland and I think it’s beginning to become apparent to people that we are. There is no mechanism for a Lynton Crosby type to heavily suggest that I temper what I say because he knows that he’s going to get very short shrift if he does.”

As to what drives Davidson, much has been made of her working-class background, that she was educated at Buckhaven High School, even that her parents hailed from Castlemilk and Merrylees in Glasgow. But if any past experience shines through in the way she handles herself, it’s the time she spent in the Territorial Army – that’s how she explains the responsibility she feels towards the candidates seeking election.

SHE says: “On exercise, you’d take on a role, platoon sergeant or platoon commander, and it was about getting people to work for you and with you and the warmth you feel towards them and the 

She shakes her head. “I felt such a responsibility in those debates to not mess it up so that it was easier for the candidates to go and knock on a door and hear people say, ‘Your girl did well last night’, rather than, ‘Your lassie had a shocker’.” She smiles.

“I am, as you can see, pretty Tiggerish. I don’t believe much in sleep. I don’t think you can ask people to do things you’re not prepared to do yourself and I’m asking a lot of people to work hard so I’m putting in the hours, too. And I’m beginning to see people recognise that.”

And with that, she’s off down the High Street.