Tom Peterkin: Davidson opening up fronts within her own party

Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson has shown she is no slave to the UK party line. Picture  PA
Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson has shown she is no slave to the UK party line. Picture PA
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In her speech to conference Ruth Davidson yesterday took care to emphasise her Conservative credentials.

“I’m an old fashioned Tory,” the Scottish Conservative leader declared. “I believe – unselfconsciously – in God and country and community. I believe in personal freedom, personal choice and personal responsibility. I believe in small but effective government – in service, in duty, in decency – in Britain.”

It was a passage designed to underline her commitment to the Conservative cause and would have been manna from heaven for the ever expanding fan base of activists who have crowned her as the darling of the UK Conservative conference.

When it comes to big draws at the annual Conservative shindig, it would appear that Ruth is the new Boris. She’s the one with the jokes, the character who says she’d “bloody love it” if she were invited on Strictly Come Dancing.

But behind the jocular style, the Tory faithful can also see that there is substance.

Davidson is, after all, the leader who has led the party out of obscurity in Scotland and done the unthinkable and relegated Labour to third place in a Scottish election for the first time in six decades.

But the unquestioning adoration from the Tory faithful towards Davidson has been so intense that one wonders if there is a danger that the Scottish Conservative leader might be becoming a follower of the cult of her own personality.

There was, for example, her BBC interview with Andrew Neil yesterday when she described herself as a “Davidsoner” – a new entry in the political lexicon. As a personality driven political ethos it perhaps does not quite have the ring of Thatcherism, Reaganomics, Butskellism, Cameroons or even Corbynites. Nevertheless it was coined by Davidson herself as she attempted to describe her own political path.

Being a Davidsoner amounted to “ploughing her own furrow” – an approach which has been apparent when it comes to her party’s refusal to adopt Theresa May’s reintroduction of grammar schools and other policies where the Scottish party diverges from the UK one.

Her determination to carve out her own path has the potential to become extremely treacherous as her party grapples with the implications of the Brexit vote The Davidson fever gripping the Birmingham ICC was unable to disguise her disapproval of the way some of the most influential figures in her party are approaching Brexit. Her speech was withering about Liam Fox’s suggestion that the status of EU nationals living in Britain would be “one of our main cards” in Brexit talks.

Fox’s comments clearly angered Davidson, who showed courage 
by being prepared to take on the notion that people settled in 
Britain could be used as a bargaining chip.

Davidson displayed boldness by making clear her objections to Fox’s dehumanising suggestion in front of the serried ranks of Cabinet ministers and party high heid yins.

“We have difficult – but necessary – debates on how we manage borders in future, let us not forget that behind discussions of numbers and rules and criteria, there lies people and homes and families,” Davidson said.

“And for those who have already chosen to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say ‘this is your home, and you are welcome here’.”

Her dig at the hard Brexiteers continued as she added: “The Conservative party I know is optimistic in spirit and internationalist in outlook – we are an outward looking people, and so we must remain.”

Her dissatisfaction with the way with how others in her party are treating EU withdrawal was also apparent when she went into the BBC studios shortly after finishing her speech. Appearing on the Daily Politics with Andrew Neil, the Scottish Tory leader was less than fulsome when it came to an Amber Rudd plan to force companies to reveal how many foreign workers they employ.

The Home Secretary’s proposal was designed to pressurise companies into employing more local works and to “prevent migrants taking jobs (that) British people can do”.

Davidson was unimpressed.

“It is not something that I would propose and you heard me say very strongly in my speech that I want us to be the international party we have always been in the past. To say to people who live and work here, who have made their home here that this is your home and you are welcome here,” she told Neil.

Some might argue that Davidson’s clashes with other figures of authority in her party add fuel to the argument that the Scottish party should sever its links with London. The SNP MSP Kenny MacAskill argued yesterday that the clash between Davidson’s softer vision of EU withdrawal and that of her hard Brexit colleagues mean that it makes sense for the Scottish party to pursue an existence which is more independent from London.

That, however, would not go down well with Davidson’s view of herself as an “old fashioned Tory”, who believes in Britain.

In any case, Davidson is doing pretty well as things are. There must also be other Davidsoners who share her concerns in Conservative high command. No only was Fox duly slapped down by David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, but it was not long before Rudd was rowing back on her proposal saying it was not something the Government was definitely going to do.