Ruth Davidson's mission to save the Scottish Tories

Can the Scottish Conservative leader reinvigorate her party's toxic brand?

May 06, 2015
Ruth Davidson is proudly leading her party into battle on election day ©Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Ruth Davidson is proudly leading her party into battle on election day ©Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/Press Association Images

When I heard that my meeting with Ruth Davidson would be at a children's indoor play park in the seaside town of Ayr, I wondered if the Scottish Conservative leader had fallen for her own hype. This was, after all, the politician whose general election 2015 journey BuzzFeed recently called “The Most Fun Election Campaign Ever,” due to her compelling photo-ops and penchant for force-feeding political hacks fizzy sweets.

But barrelling through the day-glo labyrinth of Pirate Pete's Family Entertainment Centre, Davidson is all business, charming owner Johnny Finnie with a mix of matey banter and hard policy knowledge as they chat about his successes and concerns. One minute, she's shoehorning in an idea to divert more money earned by businesses like Finnie's to the county towns they're located in. The next, she's displaying impressive recall about a nightclub called “Hanger 13” which used to be housed on the play centre's site. “[It was] notorious back in the early '90s,” she remembers.

Davidson is on “a one woman mission” to turn around her party's fortunes north of the border—the Tories have been considered unelectable in much of Scotland at least since Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax experiment, and haven’t wielded major power there since the ‘50s, when they were known as the Unionists. Wearing a baby blue scarf and sturdy black jacket, 36-year-old Davidson is compact and cheery, but nonetheless moves and talks with the unstoppable force of the tank she was recently photographed astride as part of a defence spending stunt. Her campaign has indeed been fun: “some of the things you plan,” she says, “driving tanks around for talking about defence spending, that's planned. Messing about with a fish, there was a fish there so why not?” The question is whether she can take her personal popularity and turn it into sustained success for her party—along with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Greens’ Patrick Harvie she is one of only three leaders in Westminster or Holyrood to enjoy a positive approval rating according to Ipsos Mori.

Some of the signs are good for the general election. A recent Ipsos poll found a five per cent boost for the party, putting its Scottish vote share at 17 per cent. Davidson says she's aiming for as close to 500,000 votes as possible—up on 412,000 last time. She acknowledges, though, that the uncertain extent of the SNP surge, and of the tactical voting it will provoke, puts this partly beyond her control, which “for someone who is intensely competitive and a control freak—both of which I am—is very difficult.” Some have predicted that the party will lose its only seat, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale, others that it will gain one or two more—nearby Berwickshire, for example. It's hard to tell until we see the size and shape of the yellow tsunami. Certainly, with the Union becoming the new main fault line in Scottish politics, there's a chance for Davidson to position her party as the natural home for those who think we're better together.

But Thursday's vote is just the beginning. With a Holyrood election in 2016 and all-Scotland local elections in 2017 “we never get off the election treadmill,” Davidson says. Next year she'd like the party to win its largest MSP contingent ever—more than 1999's 18 (they’re on 15 at the moment.) “People in Scotland have to see us winning again,” she says. “There are lots of people who would otherwise vote Conservative and share Conservative values but think... that we can't win.” She's aiming to prove them wrong and create a “virtuous cycle.” She's unabashed in her willingness to raise expectations; it's a high-risk strategy that could deliver big returns or lead the party into disappointment.

To make sure it's the former, the Scottish party will need to carve out a distinct message. Davidson remains fiercely loyal to David Cameron, and the PM recently returned the favour, hinting that she could be a future leader of the whole party (she says she doesn’t want the job.) She rebutts the charges made by Cameron’s critics that he has run a sterile and anti-Scottish campaign, but acknowledges that her campaign has been slightly different in its messaging. “We've come into this campaign fighting with two messages [in Scotland],” she says. One is the UK-wide party line: “this idea of... 'let's not undo all the hard work of the last five years.'” The other, she says, was forged in the outcome of September's referendum: “let's keep our country together and move forward together.” The front page of the Scottish party's site displays five strident promises focused on social justice absent from that of the UK-wide party, culminating in “I'm voting for a fairer Scotland.”

The difference is more than rhetorical. Davidson is ready to break with London on policy if necessary. For example, she is critical of the impact of the bedroom tax on Scotland because of the country’s lack of small social homes. During discussions which influenced the devolutionary Strathclyde and Smith commissions, she says, she lobbied to remove a rule which stated that the Scottish parliament couldn't mitigate the bedroom tax even if it had the means and the will. “There was this policy that was trying to get people into smaller houses so that families on waiting lists could get into bigger houses,” she says, “completely understand that. Admirable thing. But the issue was that there wasn't the smaller houses in Scotland because the housing stock wasn't there for people to move into.” In the next parliament, Holyrood is likely to get more control over this and other welfare policies. As a working-class woman who grew up on a council estate, Davidson sounds more authentic talking about welfare than her public school London counterpart. She’s also more willing to criticise the Murdoch press, tweeting her disapproval of The Sun’s now infamous photoshop of Nicola Sturgeon in a bikini on a wrecking ball. “[It was] a little bit 1970s," she says.

The Scottish campaign so far:

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But on the fundamental questions, Davidson is proudly in line with the UK-wide party: “I believe in freedom of choice. I believe in empowering the individual, getting government out of the way... getting rid of red tape for business... low taxation.” There's some debate among pollsters about whether the Scottish public are less receptive to such ideas than the English and Welsh, but it certainly puts Davidson further outside the mainstream debate there than it would in England.

Davidson believes that what lies behind Labour and the Lib Dems' woes in Scotland is that they haven't been up front enough with voters about what they believe, and is determined to avoid the same fate. “Folk aren't daft,” is her analysis, “they can tell if you're [telling] them porkie pies.” Displaying her colours so boldly is a high-risk strategy, but it's key to her philosophy.

There's an argument to say that while Davidson's ideas might find an audience in Scotland, her party's brand is too damaged to deliver them. As the SNP's Angus Robertson put it to me recently: “Tory is still a four-letter word in Scotland.” Davidson is adamant, though, that any reversal of the party's Scottish fortunes will be carried out on proudly Conservative terms. When I ask whether she'd consider a rebrand of any kind she's uncompromising:

“I'm not ashamed to be Tory. I'm proud to be Tory... Skoda used to make crap cars. Everyone used to laugh at them. VW came along, they could have just rebadged the car, but they didn't. They made the car better. I don't want to rebrand. I want to make the party better. That's what I'm working to do.”