Ruth Davidson on the journey she intends to make to Bute House
The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson speaks exclusively to Holyrood agead of the Conservative Party conference
Ruth Davidson - Picture credit: David Anderson
For a time, it was almost obligatory to introduce Ruth Davidson as the tank-driving, buffalo-riding, kickboxing lesbian destined for a glittering career in Westminster once she’s outgrown the wee pretendy parliament in Edinburgh.
But after more than five years in the public eye, many now recognise that this a stereotype – part cultivated and part foisted upon her by a reductionist media.
Today, as the leader of the Scottish opposition with ambitions to lead her party into government, she knows she’s going to have to do more than pose with cute animals to convince a still largely sceptical electorate to reappraise the once ‘toxic Tories’.
But Holyrood couldn’t resist introducing her to Angus, the British bulldog, for her party conference cover shoot.
“Can we do the photoshoot after the interview,” I ask the photographer, nervously. “She might think we’re taking the piss.”
Angus, it turns out, has a busier schedule than any of us so he gets first dibs, and Davidson, thankfully a dog lover, embraces him heartily. No one takes the piss out of Ruth Davidson more enthusiastically than Ruth Davidson, and she’s not ready to give up on the animal photoshoots just yet.
“I always think there’s an air of melancholy about a bulldog,” she says, ruffling Angus’s hangdog jowls and reflecting, with an air of melancholy, on her media persona which has made her both endearing but also endowed with an air of caricature.
“I said at the time I ran for the leadership of the party that everybody else was being defined by their job – deputy leader, transport spokesman, committee chairwoman – whereas I was ‘lesbian kickboxer Ruth Davidson’,” she says.
“I would like to think in the five years in the job I would have had a lot more to say than talk about my sexuality – although I never duck it – and I haven’t kickboxed in years.
“I like to see that it is now ‘Tory leader Ruth Davidson’ – and rightly so.”
Davidson recently said she may lack the necessary ambition to become PM, but she is clear that she wants to be First Minister in 2021, so does she view that as a less ambitious job?
“No, I see it being a different job. But I should not be leading my party if I don’t want to lead our party to government in Scotland.”
She added: “I had a job of work to do over the first five years, first to establish the party as a political force and make us relevant again after we had a long period of time where we had not only been decried but been dismissed.
“By the end of that five-year term, my job was to make us look and sound like we could be a proper opposition party – nobody credited us before the election that we could take on that position and we have.
“Now we have a five-year period where I have to make us a government in waiting, and that’s exactly what I am going to do.”
But how is she going to break the solid block of around half of voters who migrated from Yes to the SNP, and still view every election as a rerun of the 2014 vote where the No side remains a crowded political field?
“To be honest, I think the SNP are doing a pretty good job themselves with the way they have disparaged 400,000 of them that voted to leave the EU,” she said.
“They’re not only saying that they don’t exist, they also seem to be suggesting that they shouldn’t, or that they are wrong.
“I’ve always said that I don’t believe that it will be the Labour Party, and I don’t believe that it will be us, that will be the downfall of the SNP – I think it will be hubris.
“I still believe that, and I’ve got five years to make myself and my party look like a government in waiting and make myself look like a first minister in waiting – and I will.”
While she still sits on the opposition side of the Scottish Parliament, she has a seat at the top table of the Prime Minister’s unionist war cabinet, working to head off the threat of another Scottish independence referendum.
She laughs off reports that Number 10 is preparing for a second referendum in August 2018, but tacitly admits that they have got a strategy for the day Nicola Sturgeon finally approaches them for permission to stage another referendum.
She says: “I’m not sure that anybody thinks that they should have a referendum in August, in the middle of the school holidays. I did laugh when I read that one.
“Nicola Sturgeon needs to make the case in the court of public opinion to request a Section 30 order, she needs to request a Section 30 order, I’m not going to jump several points ahead of that and make it seem like it’s inevitable because that’s entirely what the SNP are trying to do.”
She adds: “The idea of asking me to play out in a publication what we would do in response to her making four or five different moves and showing our hand – I’m not going to do that.
“I don’t think another independence referendum is inevitable, so by extension, I don’t think another Edinburgh Agreement is inevitable.
“Do I think the UK Government should block another referendum forever? I have been quite clear in the press that the SNP would love nothing more than to have a process story out there, that they could create and pile grievance upon, and I don’t think we should give them that process story.
“But I certainly don’t think we should talk about what moves we would make in response to moves that the SNP haven’t made yet.
“They (the UK Government) shouldn’t say now that they would block – forever – another independence referendum. That is absolutely handing Nicola Sturgeon the process story that she wants, and I’m not going to do it.”
It is notable that Davidson repeatedly says ‘forever’, suggesting timing may be an element in future Section 30 negotiations.
In the Edinburgh Agreement, which removed Westminster’s legislative block on the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Government was handed the power to set the date and franchise in exchange for dropping a second question on ‘devo max’, but the SNP may not get its way on timing again.
It’s fair to say Theresa May definitely won’t want a battle with Bute House while she’s trying to wrest concessions from Brussels.
And with polls currently showing little appetite for a second referendum – as Davidson is also fond of pointing out – will May decide that she has public opinion on her side and put her foot down?
“Which part of: I’m not playing out in somebody’s publication what our response to moves that they haven’t made yet would be, thus showing them our hand, don’t you get?”
The tone becomes confrontational for about half a second and then she lets out a big belly laugh, a remarkably disarming gesture that clears the air after a bit of journalistic jousting.
Other politicians pout when their carefully phrased evasions aren’t treated with due deference but Davidson shrugs it off. The end result is the same, though, leaving room to speculate just what cards May and Davidson are holding.
Davidson does offer one, not entirely surprising, concession.
“The one thing that I will say on the constitution is that if there was another referendum, I think we would still win it. I think the case for independence is weaker now because of Brexit rather than stronger.”
Davidson is a virtual elder of the Conservative Party, outlasting most of the previous Brexit-bombed UK cabinet with 24 newly minted MSPs by her side.
She chuckles: “Are you calling me an elder statesman at the age of 38? How very dare you.”
With five years more leadership experience, Davidson has urged May to take a leaf out of her own self-deprecating book ahead of the Prime Minister’s keynote speech to the Scottish Conservative Conference on March 3.
The Prime Minister, it turns out, apparently has a wicked sense of humour that she would do well to show to the public, although don’t expect her to pose on a buffalo anytime soon.
“I like Theresa, sorry, Theresa May, the Prime Minister – I’ve known her a long time,” says Davidson, betraying a mixture of familiarity and deference.
“I think one thing that has never made the public realm, and I’m not sure why, is that she’s actually got a very, very dry, very wicked sense of humour.
“She’s quite self-deprecating, I think that’s a hugely attractive quality, I think actually the country would probably benefit from seeing a bit more of that, and I think she would actually benefit from people seeing a bit more of that.”
She added: “I think lots in the media expected her first 100 days in post to follow the 24-hour news cycle of having a photo op a day – that’s not her.
“She’s more of a person that will make her position clear, make a statement, and won’t feel compelled to follow it up every day for the next 20 days before she makes another statement on something else.
“She’ll make her point, she’ll give her reasons, and then she’ll go off and continue the work of being Prime Minister, then come out and make another one, so certainly for the media it will be a different style.”
Davidson insists she’s now closer to May than she was with David Cameron in the early years of their working relationship, curiously describing her as more thoughtful and reflective.
“We talk regularly, I have a good relationship with her, I know her better now than I knew David Cameron when I started, although obviously by the end, we had done a lot of work together on the referendum and other things,” she says.
“She’s changed the private office at Number 10, she’s got fewer sofas and more tables to sit round.
“She’s also one of these people who is more relaxed the more she knows someone. There are politicians who are very ‘hail fellow well met’ to journalists or businessmen or whoever they’re having a meeting with, convivial and jovial and relaxed and casual. Whereas she’s quite business-like, very courteous and polite but doesn’t give you insights into her whole life that morning.”
She added: “Her decision-making process is different. She’s very thoughtful. She’s the sort of person that listens to all of the arguments, and will take much longer to come to a decision, but once the decision is made, once she has got all of the information that she needs – or thinks that she needs – she won’t change it, the decision will be made, and that will be pretty much it.”
However, with a vast army of nationalists keen to cast her in the role of a London toady, Davidson stresses that May is decisive but not overbearing.
“I write my own manifestos and I stand by them,” she says.
“We’ve got a pretty good relationship but it’s a relationship between two professional working women. I don’t ask her permission for anything, nor would she instruct me in any way. I think that she would find that she got fairly short shrift if she did.
“But obviously, I want to make sure that…” – she pauses for an eternity, clearly searching for the right form of words that won’t trigger the SNP grievance machine – “…that we keep clashes to a minimum.
“Sometimes that can be language so we – I wouldn’t say we necessarily coordinate, but we consult.”
Despite having an extra five years of leadership experience, Davidson still insists she wouldn’t trade jobs with Theresa May.
“I think it’s the loneliest job in the world,” she says.
“I think you’ve really got to want it. I’m very lucky in that I regularly get to see behind the curtain at Number 10. Leading a G7 nation and having all of these decisions to make every day, all day, relentlessly, with some of the challenges we have in the world right now, it’s a tough job. For somebody that has that resilience and that fortitude to do it, I really do take my hat off to them. I think it’s quite marked that there are very few leaders of big nations, G7 nations, who when they stop being leader of their country, attack or disparage people who have held the job before.”
But there was one man who had his eye on the top job who had a few choice words for a previous incumbent in recent weeks. When Tony Blair stuck his neck out to urge Britain to “rise up” against Brexit, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has long coveted the keys to Number 10, described Blair as a catastrophe-prone Europhile who dragooned the country into war on a false prospectus and screwed up the Middle East.
Davidson, who repeatedly clashed with the Vote Leave cheerleader during the Brexit campaign, suggests Tories who have actually occupied Number 10 would not have stooped so low.
“It wouldn’t have been David Cameron, or John Major, and it wouldn’t have been Theresa May,” she says.
One issue Davidson and May do disagree on is the attitude towards Donald Trump, and she remains critical of Trump’s state visit to the UK.
“I thought the point of state visits was to cement friendships and honour common cause,” she says.
“I think that’s very difficult to do when somebody is suggesting that UK citizens should be denied entry into someone else’s country.
“I think the difference, and the difficulty, between the comparison of inviting Trump to the UK for a state visit and saying we had a state visit for China and some other countries who are further behind in the democratic index is that these were countries on a progressive journey.
“There is an argument for encouraging people on that journey and showing due courtesy, (but) if you believe that there is a chance that a country is on a regressive journey, I’m not sure.”
The centre-right leader rejects the notion that she is on the same political spectrum as Donald Trump, leader of the still nominally centre-right US Republican Party which has a history of cordial relations with Conservative PMs.
“I’m not on the same spectrum as him,” she insists.
“I think he’s on a spectrum all by himself. I did part of my degree in American history, and I think that the policies are so different.
“If you look at the policy platform of the UK Conservatives – certainly the Scottish Conservatives – we’re so much closer to ‘blue dog Democrats’ than anything else. It’s a strain of the Democrat Party which is socially liberal but fiscally conservative, so for value for money, for growth, supporting business, but also believes in a woman’s right to choose (abortion), gay marriage, and other things.
“The entirety of politics in the States is to the right of the UK, so I don’t think it’s in any way fair to suggest that the policy platform of the current Republican Party matches the policy platform of the current Conservative Party – it just doesn’t.
“I was in DC last week talking at an event, and one of the points I was making was that one of the reasons the response in the UK has been so intense – with Trump leading the news night after night in some other country – is because quite often we have seen ourselves as the bridge between Europe and America.
“We’ve had these symbiotic relationships where the outlook of the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of the UK have been in step and in synch with some of their goals.
“Thatcher and Reagan were two, Blair and Clinton had a very close relationship as well, but I’m not sure you would be able to describe the relationship between Theresa May and Donald Trump on the same grounds.”
However, pictures of Theresa May holding hands with Donald Trump couldn’t have done Davidson any favours, particularly when she’s trying to cement her position as Scotland’s premier opposition party in the council elections in May.
“I’m pretty sure that Donald Trump is not at the top of people’s minds as they vote for who’s going to sit on their local council,” she says.
“All I can say is that, I’m so glad it was her hand that he grabbed and not any other part of her.”
It could be argued that Trump represents conservatism writ large – with his tough stance on immigrants, close ties to big business, and his desire to build a wall while the Brexiteers want to shore up the English Channel.
“I don’t think there is anything that you can point to that suggests that we want to reinforce the Channel,” says Davidson.
“In fact, some might remember that it was the Conservatives that built the tunnel under the Channel in order to link ourselves more closely with some of our European neighbours and counterparts.
“I think there’s going to be some tough but necessary conversations, because when it came to immigration it was held at a European level, so there was no decision that people in the UK had to make about immigration, because it was decided for us, if you like, by the EU, but of course, we were part of that process.”
She rejects the Scottish Government’s claim that they are being ignored by the UK Government in the Brexit process.
“The very first trip that the Prime Minister made when she took office was to come and see Nicola Sturgeon the day after she took office, the numerous meetings of the Joint Ministerial
Committee when the Scottish Government sat down with the other administrations and the UK Government at a prime ministerial and ministerial level, the meetings and phone calls between David Davis and Mike Russell.
“Anyone would think that the SNP would seek to deny that this is happening just because they want to leverage Brexit for their own constitutional position and outcome, and I think it’s sad that they’re not willing to put the best result for Scotland ahead of their own constitutional obsession.”
She goes on to accuse the Scottish Government of lying and misrepresenting the joint ministerial discussions to leverage support for their constitutional position, rather than building a Team UK strategy.
She says: “There were opportunities for the Scottish Government to do what I have sought to do in many ways – to make sure that individual needs of different parts of Scotland are being fed into the process in good faith, rather than walking out of Downing Street on her first meeting and going up to a bank of cameras and saying ‘all of that is terrible’.
“Mike Russell stood up in Holyrood and said ‘David Davis offered me a hotline but it took me 38 hours, or something, to get through to him’.
“It was just a lie. There was a scheduled phone call later that afternoon. That is not acting in good faith.”
She also rejects the nationalist argument that people were secretly hoodwinked into voting No to independence on a prospectus that it was the only way to guarantee Scotland’s place in the EU.
“Everybody knew there was a (Brexit) referendum coming up – it was in the SNP’s white paper,” she says.
But we still don’t know what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means, as May is just as determined to play her Brexit cards close to her chest as she is to keep her Indyref strategy secret.
“I was one of the first Tories to break cover before David Cameron had his renegotiation in Europe to say that the reason that I wanted to stay part of it was because of free trade,” she says.
“Now we’ve got a new prime minister in office saying that is the absolute basis of her negotiations.”
But is she confident that Theresa May can secure the same free trade benefits with a treaty that Britain has as a member of the EU?
“I know absolutely that that is what she is going to do, and I trust her to be able to do a good job on that,” she says.
Brussels has already said there will be no ‘Europe a la carte’, and that access to the single market will require acquiescence on the EU pillar of free movement of people – a policy that appears to run counter to the Brexiteers’ key goal of taking back control of Britain’s borders.
Could EU nationals in the future be subjected to the same treatment as the Brain family from Australia, who fought a very high-profile battle with the Home Office to stay in Dingwall, which is hardly buckling under the weight of uncontrolled immigration?
Davidson says: “I can’t talk about specifics, but in a general sense, if you have a system and people don’t meet their visa criteria, don’t have employment, breach that, then they don’t have a right to stay, in the same way that Brits are asked to leave Australia quite often.”
So is that going to apply to European nationals after Brexit, including Irish nationals like her partner, who hails from Wexford.
“Well, I think that’s all part of the negotiation process over the next two years,” she says, clearly bristling at the hint that the debate is getting personal.
“I don’t think there is any suggestion, and I think it is irresponsible of your publication, to suggest that EU migrants who have been living here for a number of years would be subject to that, because there is no suggestion from government that they would be,” she says.
For once, there is no cordial belly laugh, and Davidson pointedly stresses that there is a willingness on both sides of the Channel to resolve this equation – but she cannot say that it is a done deal.
“The UK Government has made clear that they were happy, and wished to get this sorted out now rather than even having to wait until Article 50 and they have been told by other EU nations that they wouldn’t do it,” she says.
“So the willingness is there. David Davis has made it absolutely clear that people currently living here, for however many years you have to be here, will be unaffected, that it is at the very top of the list, it was in the Prime Minister’s speech of one of her 12 key objectives.
“Now she has a responsibility to look after the millions of Brits who live in 27 other countries, and I think people do understand that, but I think it’s unfair to suggest that there isn’t cognisance of that in government.”
So it’s in the bag, then?
“The UK Government has said they want to get that done as quickly as possible to give people the reassurances that they need,” she says.
We await these assurances with baited breath, although another Brexit development may not be so eagerly awaited.
Warner Bros, the studio behind Harry Potter and the DC superhero movies, is reportedly in talks to bring the story of the Brexit campaign to the big screen.
So who would play Ruth, the plucky Scot who goes toe-to-toe with BoJo but fails to derail the Brexit bandwagon?
“I dunno, I’m not sure there’s too many short, dark, gobby, overweight Scotswomen that make it to Hollywood to become actresses,” she chuckles.
She is currently writing a book about women who have reached the top of their professions, but portraying Ruth Davidson on screen appears to be one glass ceiling that no woman can break.
“I’m not sure there’s many women that would be a shoo-in for me,” she says.
“Maybe a TV actress, there’s more shapes on TV, let me get back to you…”
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