Ruth Davidson’s star is beginning to fade
Dani Garavelli asks what if Scots use the council elections to send a message to Theresa May about Brexit and welfare reform
Dani Garavelli - Image credit: Nick Grigg/Holyrood
Not for the first time, the Prime Minister may have misjudged the mood north of the Border and thrown her supposed Scottish star Ruth Davidson a curve ball in the form of her snap general election.
Sure, just under a year ago, Davidson was the Girl with the Golden Touch.
After winning Edinburgh Central in the Holyrood elections and more than doubling the number of Conservative MSPs, she was hailed as the answer to her party’s travails.
National newspapers went gaga for the jolly pint-puller who had supposedly ‘detoxified’ the Tories north of the border, and there was even talk of her moving south to take a place in the Cabinet.
Today, that sense of invincibility has evaporated. As the council elections approach, Davidson is on a downward trajectory.
The daft photo stunts have dried up, she is increasingly tarnished by the national party’s excesses and the latest Ashcroft poll gave her an approval rating of -21, compared to Nicola Sturgeon at +11.
She may believe the general election will mean a few more seats in Scotland (Calum Kerr’s Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency is a likely target) but, given David Mundell has a majority of just 798, they could end up losing the only one they’ve held on to.
Of all the political missteps she has made, her inadequate response to the rape clause – an exemption to the new two-child cap on tax credits, which applies to women whose third child has been conceived through non-consensual sex – is proving most damaging.
Davidson’s refusal to distance herself from a policy that risks re-traumatising women and stigmatising children was problematic enough; but her subsequent attempt to blame the SNP, suggesting the party could – and should – mitigate against the deleterious effects of Westminster’s actions, is so wrong-headed it feels as if she is on a mission to self-destruct.
Nor is Davidson the only member in the Scottish party to underestimate the importance of striking the right tone.
Rather than addressing complaints that the two-child cap will push 200,000 more children into poverty, Adam Tomkins, Tory list MSP for Glasgow, chose to tweet sneeringly about his SNP counterpart’s misspellings, while Davidson’s deputy, Jackson Carlaw, joined her in trying to turn the tables on the First Minister.
Indeed, so united have the Scottish Tories been, one has to assume this deflection is a pre-agreed strategy as opposed to something blurted out under pressure.
The rape clause is not the only factor undermining the Scottish Conservatives’ credibility.
None of the parties has achieved a 50:50 gender balance in candidates for the council elections, but – once again – the Tories are lagging behind (just 17 per cent of its candidates are women).
A number of Conservative candidates have also been suspended for offensive comments.
On top of all this, the party is hell-bent on turning the council elections – which should revolve around the provision of local services – into a vote on Indyref2.
This is odd given the way some services, such as education, have deteriorated under the SNP and that the party is vulnerable to criticism over local government funding cuts.
Now, of course, the local elections will be overshadowed by the general election – which is also being touted as a vote on separation
And the Scottish Tories are falling back on a tactic that proved successful at last year’s Holyrood elections: presenting Davidson as the only politician who will stand up for the Union.
But the landscape has changed since May 2016. Back then, Davidson was able to argue the referendum was over and it was time to move on.
Post-Brexit, however, not only does the SNP have a clear mandate for a second vote, but, by pandering to the right wing of their party, the Conservatives are the ones who effectively handed it to them.
The majority of Scots who voted for Remain (some of whom are in the No camp) hold David Cameron et al responsible for being pulled out of the EU.
Davidson’s subsequent failure to fight for a softer Brexit strengthened Sturgeon’s hand.
It is a lot more difficult to convince the electorate you are crucial to preventing another referendum when you played a key role in putting said referendum back on the agenda.
Davidson’s star began to fade after the Leave vote. Under Cameron, she had some leeway to criticise national policy.
May, on the other hand, appears to keep her on a tighter leash. So, first she failed to speak up loudly enough against the xenophobia of the Tory party conference, then against a hard Brexit and finally against the rape clause.
Davidson also fails to grasp the extent to which having three female party leaders influences attitudes towards women in Scotland (though even the Daily Mail – which chose not to run its Legs-It splash north of the border – seems to get it).
While Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale will put party differences aside to campaign on gender equality, she demonstrates no such sense of sisterhood.
Those who interpreted Davidson’s popularity as proof of the Scottish Tories’ rehabilitation jumped the gun.
Far from being detoxified, they continue to turn a blind eye to the peddling of hate and attacks on society’s poorest
Because of this, putting national issues at the heart of local elections could well backfire.
Davidson wants voters to send a message about their opposition to Indyref2 to Sturgeon; but what if, instead, they decide to send a message about Brexit and welfare reforms to May?
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