A friend of mine recently argued that in the event that the Scottish Conservatives either fail to retain their only seat in Scotland or fail to improve their share of the vote then Ruth Davidson should remain as leader.
Much of what he says I concur with. Ruth Davidson is a brilliant political operator, a lifeline to her party and one who has injected much-needed steel, and not rusted iron, into the backbone of a party normally content to exist but not to live.
Davidson resigning on her own terms or in electoral disgrace would be a devastating blow to the Scottish Conservatives. It would not be the fatal blow. The party has mastered hanging on when the electorate and even some of its own members and representatives keep trying to give it the final nudge.
The Scottish Tories are not alone. All polls are predicting a bloodletting from Scottish Labour to the SNP. That the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland for the last fifty years represents a stark foreboding for the Scottish Conservatives. If the end is nigh for Scottish Labour it is a safe bet that Jim Murphy would be implored to resign. For all his on paper Blair years-savviness compared to his boorish predecessor, Murphy would ultimately be held to task by the stringent rebuttal of the left of his party, despite the root problems of Scottish Labour’s not occurring under his leadership.
Davidson, on the other hand, has had longer to establish herself in the public consciousness, even taking a James VI turn to claim the English political zeitgeist with her zealous and sincere performance during the referendum. She has made struck the right balance between Iain Duncan Smith’s “never underestimate the determination of a quiet man” and taking on Salmond in a shouting match. In the general election, she has improved her stock, countering Nicola Sturgeon with a flurry of details and truth calling in the face of, as I argued previously, the Salmond-esque shrug and chuckle approach of the new First Minister.
It would be political suicide for the Scottish Conservatives to get rid of Ruth Davidson. Yet she would not be dooming herself: if while she has brought an energising zeal to bear on her party that desperately needed it, the party has not responded in step. Their logo has changed (the quickly jumped upon “double cross”) but there is little to suggest that there is a new intellectual reformation has taken grip to support the imagination that Davidson exudes. The party as a whole is still Thatcher-lite: there is little dissent, few policy forums and Lord Strathclyde’s devolution commission report is the only radical piece of work produced in some years.
This begs the question as to who is carrying who. Are the Scottish Conservatives semi or totally autonomous from the Conservative Party down south? Are they one entity when it suits them and miles apart when they differ? Do the Scottish Conservatives wait to be told what to think by London, or is the Party in Scotland not giving Davidson the ideas and infrastructure she deserves?
Whatever the arrangement Davidson evidently does not have the freedom to do as she pleases. There’s a complexity, peculiarly Scottish dimension to her “Blue collar Conservatism” that makes her liked across the political spectrum, both north and south of the border. Cameron has absconded from much of his One-Nation credentials in favour of welfare reform that sounds better on paper than in the reality. One wonders if the Scottish Conservatives had total autonomy with no accountability to London how they would position themselves.
In years past the former Deputy Leader Murdo Fraser flirted with the idea of a breakaway centre-right party to give the party a new chance at attracting voters. It’s not the first time this was suggested. The Scottish Conservatives became so out of a merger with the Unionist Party and the Conservative Party in 1965. Fraser’s detractors considered the move as treacherous and a capitulation to circumstance, despite the proposals being met with enthusiasm by members, the public and other MSPs. The practicality of it was and is, however, more Ship of Theseus than anything else: if you change the name won’t the operations and members simply move across, and how would you create a brand truly different to launch a new membership intake? With Davidson’s selection, the debate went away.
It is a novel joke to in pub’s who was the last Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom: Not Cameron as a coalition partner, but John Major. Despite a coalition government you find the Scottish Conservatives as part of the same joke: not far off nearly twenty years since the reincarnation of the Scottish Parliament and yet the same year was its last high mark of support.
Davidson will have lead her party through the 2012 Scottish local council elections, the 2014 EU elections, the 2014 Scottish Referendum and now the 2015 general election. There was no marked change the share of the vote received by her party. The fault cannot and should not be left at her doorstep. Yet four years and four elections is long enough time to consider that the game is up, if not for her then her party. If, as polls predict, there is an SNP surge which takes the Scottish Tories’ only seat at Westminster a conclusive change must be had rather than the return to just ticking along. Davidson’s resignation would be a stark shock to think again at the innovation Murdo Fraser was suggesting and would at least pump some intellectual action into the malaise that is disappointing members and depriving the electorate of a real alternative.