Could Ruth Davidson be the next leader of the Conservative Party?

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Profile Cover Photo: Calton Hill, Edinburgh / Raphaël Chekroun / CC
Photograph: Calton Hill, Edinburgh / Raphaël Chekroun / CC / CC

Not since 1955 have the Conservative Party in Scotland won more seats in a General Election than Labour, and when the Tories were wiped from the map north of the River Tweed in the 1997 General Election, Scotland was all but surrendered by the Tories as a lost cause. All the more miraculous, then, that the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party would more than double their representation in Holyrood and beat the Scottish Labour Party by thirty-one seats to twenty-four in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election. The reason Scotland experienced this so called rhapsody in blue was, as Alex Massie wrote in The Times, the Tories presented the Ruth, the whole Ruth and nothing but the Ruth.

In an era which has seen antipathy and mistrust towards the political classes mount to such levels as to give rise to the likes of Donald Trump, few politicians from the political mainstream can be deemed genuinely popular. And yet, the presidential-style campaign lead by the young, gregarious, kick-boxing, tank-straddling, former Territorial Army signaller struck a chord with voters in a way in which precious few in Ruth Davidson’s party could ever hope to emulate.

Her success in reversing sixty years of Tory decline in Scotland has encouraged journalists and commentators from across the spectrum, from The Telegraph to the New Statesman, to muse whether she is that much talked of dark horse in the race for the next leader of the UK Conservative Party. In the aftermath of her electoral success on May the fifth, Ladbrooks bookmakers slashed her odds from 50/1 to 33/1, and the likes of BetFred and Totesport placed her at a more ambitious 16/1. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently, David Cameron himself said of Ruth Davidson, “She is a force to be reckoned with”, and when it was suggested she might someday be the leader of the party, he replied, “Indeed. I don’t put a limit on her ambition. I think she is extremely effective.”

As James Forsyth of The Spectator recently highlighted whilst speaking on Coffee House Shots, many thought of as favourites to replace David Cameron have been bruised over the last few months: Sajid Javid was deemed slow, if not apathetic to act on the Tata Steel crisis, Nicky Morgan has been made to U-turn on forced academisation of English state schools, the reputation of George Osborne suffered greatly from his poorly received Budget in March and consequent public spat with Iain Duncan Smith over welfare reform, and the transparently self-serving dealings of Boris Johnson throughout the course of the EU Referendum campaign have caused many in his party to doubt his credibility as party leader, particularly following his comparison of EU expansionism to that of the Third Reich, encouraging hopes that an alternative leadership candidate might emerge. Indeed, so-called Conservative ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks during their civil war on Europe have damaged many a Tory in Westminster in ways in which those in Holyrood, including Davidson, are seemingly immune.

But what would Davidson actually bring as leader? Well, for one thing, as Marina Hyde writes in The Guardian, the last thing twenty-first century Britain needs is another of the Bullingdon Club alumni as Prime Minister, and so the daughter of a couple who grew up on a Glasgow housing scheme would bring a welcome change. Indeed, it is her blue-collar roots which lend an authenticity to Davidson, allowing her to mix with all sorts of people in all sorts of settings, whether it be discussing dinosaurs with Gary Tank Commander or her wine-fuelled tweets on Have I Got News For You: you will never see Ruth Davidson making such gaffes as eating a hotdog with a knife and fork as David Cameron did, or baffled by a pint glass in scenes reminiscent of Conservative London Mayoral candidate and son of a billionaire, Zac Goldsmith. As political commentator David Torrance says of Davidson, “People think there is a real person there. In politics, that is gold dust.”

Her more liberal brand of conservatism and determination to speak out against controversial Tory policy on issues such as Tax Credits and child refugees perhaps also underlines her break from the nasty variety of conservatism displayed by the likes of Zac Goldsmith in his London Mayoral campaign.

Ultimately, as Marina Hyde continues in her piece for The Guardian, this young, gay, charismatic woman is a ‘natural winner’, lest we forget that the parade of male, pale and stale Conservative leaders over the past twenty-four years have won but a single General Election between them, and 2015 was by a slim margin. As Hyde concludes, as far as Tories go:

“…None is a patch on Davidson, for my money. Along with Nicola Sturgeon, she is a charismatic female Scottish politician whom people elsewhere in the country will tell you they wish they could vote for instead of what they have… my suspicion is that if the party made a seriously concerted effort to pick more from the Ruth end than the Zac end, they’d be tough to beat for the very long foreseeable [future].”

What of the practicalities? Assuming David Cameron survives any post-EU Referendum coup attempt and resigns as planned just prior to the 2020 General Election, Davidson not being based in the Commons would make such an appointment unlikely, albeit Sir Alec Douglas-Home did become Prime Minister in 1963 one month prior to becoming a member of the Commons, so such a move would not be unprecedented. A Tory leadership candidate coming out of left field would not be unprecedented either, as Davidson herself has highlighted; in fact, the last three Tory Prime Ministers would not have been deemed the obvious choice just a few years prior to holding the party’s top job. However, Davidson’s determination that she should represent a Scottish constituency does present a practical barrier, as the Tories have held no more than one seat in Scotland since 1997, which currently happens to be occupied by the Secretary of State for Scotland. As Davidson explained in an interview with comedian Matt Forde:

“Scotland’s my home… and I don’t want to be the only Scot in the village for some satellite town outside of Birmingham, thanks very much! I’m sure it’s a very nice satellite town, but that doesn’t interest me.”

Would Davidson want the job? She has made no secret of the fact that she feels she has a job to do in Scotland, explaining in the same interview, “I certainly think that the two million people who voted No in the [Scottish Independence] Referendum deserve a voice, and I want to be that voice.” In an interview with The Telegraph, Davidson has said she is potentially open to the idea of a move to Westminster at some point, and has in fact twice, unsuccessfully, stood for a Westminster seat, but is not drawn towards the office of Prime Minister due to the loneliness of the post. However, she is determined that a Scot, in some shape or form, will once more become Prime Minister, and used her appearance on the first episode of the BBC’s Sunday Politics after the 2016 election to explicitly tell Andrew Neil exactly that; perhaps a move to the Commons would in time encourage her to be that Scot, particularly given her principles regarding service when it comes to her country.

Indeed, in a highly revealing piece Davidson herself wrote for Conservative Home, she again, in rhetoric reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher and others who would go on to take up the role, brushes aside the suggestion of her ever becoming Prime Minister, but then continues on to talk of her sense of duty and the importance of self-sacrifice in serving one’s country, enshrined in her from her days in the Territorial Army. She then follows-up by actually giving the example of her electing to stand for leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party when it was, ‘not in my best interests’, but felt that, if she did not stand, the very future of the Union and the United Kingdom could be at stake, and so was compelled by duty to the country. Just how far might this sense of patriotic duty take her?

So will Ruth Davidson be the next leader of the Conservative Party? If nothing else, the practicalities make it unlikely, perhaps to the detriment of her party. Might she be leader at some point? Watch this space.

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About Rodaidh McLaughlin 5 Articles
Rodaidh is a Politics & History graduate from the University of Stirling who takes a particular interest in political philosophy and European history.

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