Ruth Davidson's sights on second in one-horse Holyrood race

It was on a typically hearty election trip to the Cairngorms car park that Ruth Davidson saw a small sign that Scottish hostility to the Conservatives may be thawing like the snow on the ski-slopes above her. A middle-aged snowboarder ran over to her for a selfie. 'I'm voting for you, even though I've never voted for the Tories before,' he said. The snowboarder then introduced himself as Graeme Steel, the son of Lord (David) Steel, the former Liberal leader.

Much is resting on the personality of Ruth Davidson in the Conservatives push to become the official opposition in the next parliament. Photograph: John Devlin
Much is resting on the personality of Ruth Davidson in the Conservatives push to become the official opposition in the next parliament. Photograph: John Devlin

“It was weird, but I suppose our appeal must be crossing all bounds,” laughed Davidson, who, despite her eternal optimism, must know she needs many more such converts to achieve her ambition. “We are heading for our best-ever result at a Holyrood election. The Labour Party is heading for the worst ever result at a Holyrood election,” was the Scottish Conservative leader’s upbeat analysis of a campaign based on her plans to replace Labour as Scotland’s main party of opposition.

Taking a short break from the endless round of photocalls and media commitments in a Glasgow hotel, Davidson’s conversation was littered with references to her ability to hold a rampant SNP to account in the aftermath of this one-horse election race.

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“Labour have had nine years at it. They haven’t really laid a glove, so let’s give someone else a try,” Davidson said. “I am promising people that I will take my role and duties as leader of the opposition incredibly seriously and do it to the absolute best of my ability.”

This week her manifesto will put scrutiny of Nicola Sturgeon’s party at its heart as she steps up her drive to beat Labour into third place. Her manifesto will propose a series of reforms to give Holyrood more “teeth” when it comes to challenging the domination of the SNP. The Conservatives believe convenerships of committees should be held by opposition parties to improve accountability, while opposition spokesmen and women should be able to question ministers weekly. She will also propose that MSPs should stay on the same committee for the full parliamentary term to allow them to develop a field of expertise.

The Tory leader has staked a great deal personally on this election. By putting “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition” as the Tory list vote option on the ballot paper, the party hopes to capitalise on her personal popularity. Inevitably, cynics have noticed that form of words also avoids the use of the word Conservative – one of the least successful political brands in recent Scottish political history.

Things, however, are changing. Davidson believes 5 May will see a changing of the Tory guard with many old stagers leaving or retiring; there is a raft of new Conservative candidates, who can freshen up the party. Examples cited by Ruth Davidson are Dean Lockhart, a lawyer who was brought up on a Lanarkshire council estate on the distinctly non-Tory Keir Hardie Road. Since then he has worked as a highly successful lawyer in the Far East.

“He has come back to Scotland because he really wants to give back to the country of his birth,” Davidson said. Another example is Annie Wells, a lesbian single mum who works for Marks and Spencer. She has an outside chance of sneaking in on the Glasgow list.

“She’s a phenomenal woman. She was brought up in the East End and she is just possibly the hardest working person that I have ever met in my entire life. I cannot tell you what a character she would be around the parliament.”

With Labour in disarray, Davidson has been assiduously wooing No voters, arguing that her party is the only one that can be trusted with the Union. With Sturgeon ramping up another independence drive this summer, Davidson has been playing the unionist card at every opportunity. According to Davidson, it is Sturgeon who is forcing her hand as the constitutional split across the country becomes ever more entrenched.

“I would absolutely love it if I never had to talk about this again, because the question had been resolved,” Davidson said. “We were promised that it would be. We were promised if we as a country listened to all the arguments and cast our ballots in the referendum, then both sides would respect that result. Then Nicola stands up less than 18 months later and says ‘I’m going to start a new campaign in the summer to split our country up’. That’s not respecting that result. For as long as she is agitating, threatening and pushing for this, then I will stand up for the two million people who cast their ballot for No. Nicola Sturgeon is behaving like a First Minister for the SNP not a First Minister for Scotland.” Despite plaudits for her strong media performances, Davidson has not had things all her own way on the campaign trail. She has been taken to task over the plans for a graduate endowment scheme that would end free university tuition. Similarly, her plans to reintroduce prescription charges have been attacked.

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As ever, the London arm of her party has presented problems for her with Davidson being attacked for not speaking out strongly enough against George Osborne’s aborted plan to cut benefits to the disabled, while she now finds herself having to field questions about David Cameron’s tax affairs.

Nevertheless, the turmoil engulfing Labour is such that this must be the Conservatives’ best chance of making a real impact on Scottish politics in recent history. On that front there was discouraging news last week.

On the back of a few polls suggesting the Conservatives were closing on Labour, a survey by TNS found that second-vote support for Labour remains 21 per cent, still well ahead of the Tories on 15 per cent.

What if, having staked her reputation on defeating Labour, she fails? At a lunch with journalists last week, Davidson contemplated the election outcome. “I’ll either be seen as a tactical genius or end up with egg on my face,” was how she described two differing scenarios facing her. Sitting in her Glasgow hotel, she was pressed on which it would be. “We’ll find out on May the sixth,” was her answer.