Ruth Davidson’s greatest skill is in distancing herself from her own party

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 3 June 2018 in Comment

For all the talk of Ruth Davidson’s political skills, her real attribute is that she is a Conservative Party chameleon

The centre-ground of politics is a crowded place. But it was telling when Lord Darling, former Labour chancellor and head of the Better Together campaign, turned to the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, at an event to promote the Union, and asked why, given her politics, she wasn’t a member of his party.

She, in turn, asked why, given Corbyn and McDonnell, he still was.

It was a typical Davidson quip; quick-witted, sharp and cheeky-chappie funny. And entirely designed to take any sting out of the actual point being made and deflect attention from where her politics really do lie.

For all the talk of Davidson’s political skills, her real attribute is not on where she stands on this policy or that – not just because that’s a seemingly ever moveable feast – it is that she is a Conservative Party chameleon. It’s part of her appeal that she can be whoever you want her to be. So, for a Labour high heid yin to question where on the spectrum her politics lie was really quite revealing.

And it matters, because day-in, day-out the Scottish Conservative leader is at the heart of a media frenzy about whether she is headed for No.10. And the longer that continues, the more the focus might turn on the question: ‘What does Ruth Davidson actually stand for?’, rather than just what we know she is against.

Last week, Davidson was named as one of Vogue magazine’s 25 most influential women in Britain, celebrated for how they are redefining the way we Brits live our lives.

The accolade came just days after Davidson gave what was billed as a ‘big speech’ on the economy. It was a chance to reset the dial. An opportunity to grasp policy detail and reverse the economic and social damage brought by Brexit, austerity and a series of so-called welfare reforms that have plunged thousands into poverty and sent the ‘just about managing’ scuttling off to food banks.

This is the divided Britain that Davidson has helped define, and as someone so consistently tipped for the top, she is integral to shifting the whole axis of how we in Britain relate to each other and to the rest of the world.

For while she describes herself as a soggy, liberal Tory and appears soft on immigration, strong on human rights and a champion of equality, she is complicit with a political party that has tolerated racism and Islamophobia within its own ranks, and implemented pugnacious immigration policies that have led to scandals such as Windrush.

And it is surely testament to her remarkable communication skills and political sleight of hand that she is regarded by a Metropolitan commentariat and its conscious myopia as being divorced from all of that.

Last week’s ‘big’ economic speech was classic Davidson. It offered little in the way of real economic argument and more a series of negative observations about the property market, productivity and population. And while many result from the adverse consequences of policies straight from within the Conservative crucible, Davidson was astute enough to know what would make the headlines.

And so it was that the next day, her statements about more funding for the NHS and getting rid of immigration targets splashed.

On both, she wasn’t really flying a policy kite.

She is brilliant at spotting the popular, seeing the direction of travel, feeling the public pulse, and claiming an idea as her own. It’s no secret that the UK Government is to make a big financial offer to the NHS on its 70th birthday, so Davidson just ripped off the wrapping paper before Jeremy Hunt could gift it. She’s a former journalist and she understands well the value of being ahead of the pack.

But perhaps Davidson’s greatest skill is distancing herself from her own party when it suits her. She can talk soft on immigration, on Brexit and in support of the NHS, but they’re just words and nothing, but nothing, encapsulates her hypocrisy more neatly than in the case of Denzel Darku.

Darku, a 23-year-old charity worker and a student nurse from Ghana, who came to Scotland when he was 15 and now lives in Paisley, has been told by the Home Office he has to leave.

Darku has been educated here, been an elected member of the Scottish Youth Parliament and carried the Queen’s baton ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. He is, says the First Minister, a “credit to Scotland.”

But next week, Darku could be kicked out of Scotland, deported under the UK Government’s immigration rules that say he should go. And while the rest of the Scottish Parliament last week applauded his MSP, Neil Bibby, for his support of Darku’s bid to remain, Ruth Davidson and her colleagues sat on their hands as the clapping turned to cries of ‘shame’.

Darku is, by all accounts, an exceptional young man. He is just the kind of skilled, hard-working immigrant that Davidson said that we should be looking for. And particularly in the NHS.

Denzel Darku may be exceptional but he should not be an exception to a bad rule. He provides the real test of Davidson’s political leadership and not the fanciful imaginings of a Westminster media bubble that bolsters Davidson’s profile when it should afford her policy record as much scrutiny as any question over whether she will be the next Tory prime minister.

Denzel Darku offers Ruth a prescient opportunity to prove the rhetoric of a few days ago has substance and that she’s willing to match her bold words to the hard reality that an immigrant like him is facing right now.

Over to you Ruth, we hear you have influence in No.10.

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