Ruth Davidson on the platform from which the Scottish Conservatives can win

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 2 March 2018 in Inside Politics

Holyrood's exclusive interview with the Scottish Conservative leader ahead of the party's spring conference

Ruth Davidson - credit David Anderson/Holyrood

Incredibly, I last interviewed Ruth Davidson five years ago, just 18 months into her tenure as leader, and when the kindest thing being said of her short time at the helm was that there were “small glimmers of hope”. 

And given that description came from her fellow Tory MSP, Murdo Fraser, and close rival in a bitterly-fought leadership contest, it seemed she had been damned with faint praise.

However, five years on, those small glimmers of hope have been eclipsed by the full-on glare of success.

By any measure, Davidson has resurrected her party from being an electoral irrelevance to be the one to watch. 

From having one solitary Scottish MP at Westminster for 20 years, she now has 13. She has more than doubled the number of MSPs from 15 to 31, replacing Labour as the main opposition at Holyrood and last year the tally of Tory councillors across Scotland rose by almost 100 per cent to 276, all standing on a ticket of ‘Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives’. 

Davidson herself is frequently tipped as a potential prime minister, if not a first minister, and is credited with keeping Theresa May in No 10.

Davidson too has undergone a transformation in the intervening years from being a slightly gauche, little recognised MSP, to overtaking Nicola Sturgeon in national approval ratings.

She has wooed the media and has achieved near celebrity status with regular appearances on national television, a slot at this year’s Davos conference, a four-page spread in glossy fashion-magazine, Vogue, and as a contestant on a special charity edition of Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off to be aired later this year.

And following her national exposure as a passionate campaigner for a Remain vote when she took on Boris Johnson in the live broadcast debate from the SSE Arena at Wembley during the EU referendum and accused him of peddling lies, it’s no exaggeration to say, that down south, at least, she is regarded as something of a national treasure.

Scots, however, remain slightly sceptical about what Davidson actually offers and more often than not she is accused of being a political one-trick pony. It’s all about the constitution, stupid!

Regardless, it’s all a long way from 2013 when we last sat down for an interview. Back then, even her own MSPs – only two backed her in the leadership campaign – were briefing against her. Tory grandee, Lord Forsyth, was describing her move to investigate giving further powers to the Scottish Parliament as a ‘suicide mission’. 

The normally supportive Daily Telegraph was carrying stories of ‘deep disillusionment’ among some of her parliamentary colleagues and there was fevered speculation that she could even lose her sole Scottish MP, David Mundell, at the next election in 2015. 

With opinion polls showing little movement for the party, sources at the Scottish Parliament told Holyrood that there was near mutiny on the Scottish Conservative corridor at her lacklustre performance, particularly at FMQs. 

Many blamed her political inexperience. And it was true, she was a novice. Davidson had been a member of the Conservative Party for just three years when she was elected, having joined up on the same day that she handed in her application for redundancy at the BBC where she worked as a radio journalist, inspired, she said, by David Cameron’s call, in the wake of the expenses’ scandal, for people who had never been political before to get involved.

A year later in 2009, she was pounding the streets of Glasgow making a credible effort in a no-win situation as the Conservative candidate in the Glasgow North East by-election. She didn’t expect to win and she didn’t, but she did win plaudits and was firmly planted on the media’s ‘who to watch’ list. She was then shortlisted for the English seat of Bromsgrove, left vacant by the exit of Julie Kirkbride, but failed to win the selection. She again contested the Glasgow North East seat in the general election in 2010 but again failed to make an impact on the staunchly Labour vote.

She says the experience was important because it compounded in her a belief that Tories need to make their voice heard on every doorstep in Scotland, no matter what the historical impact.

Davidson spent much of the remaining part of that year working for Annabel Goldie, now Baroness Goldie, as head of the leader’s office and in May of 2011, was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP for Glasgow. 

Days later, Goldie announced she was stepping down as leader and although Davidson’s potential as a future leader had been recognised by commentators, many were surprised when she threw her hat in the ring as a contender so early in her political career. 

There is no doubt that what Davidson brought to the table was a fresh face and at the beginning her boundless energy, supreme self-confidence and ability to articulate made up for any misgivings about her lack of political experience.

But a lot has happened since; not least two referendums, a Scottish Parliament election in which she was re-elected but this time for the constituency seat of Edinburgh Central, a general election, a snap election and local government elections.

“Much that was remarked upon at the time that I became leader was I had very little political experience – all merited, completely true,” she says. “My leader and mentor, Annabelle Goldie, resigned on my first day in the Scottish Parliament and that’s quite a baptism of fire…well, you know, I can have that effect on women,” she quips. 

“Damn it, that’s the rag out…Seriously, though, it meant I did have to learn and over the past six, almost six and a half years, that I have been leader, I’ve led this party through six national elections and two referendums. 

"Now, I would argue that that is a huge amount of campaigning experience in a very short time and I’ve had to learn a lot from that and goodness knows, I’ve made mistakes and they’ve been plastered all over the front page of newspapers and for somebody who is driven and has professional pride in what they’re trying to achieve, having mistakes played out in public can be very difficult, but being able to sort of swallow that and keep going and keep plugging away and also trying to bring folk with me has been hugely satisfying. 

“Part of the big revolution that we’ve had in the party in Scotland is how many new people we’ve encouraged to put their hands up and get involved – that next generation of Conservatives. At the last election in Holyrood, of our 31 people who were elected, 25 had never served in a parliament before and with Alex Johnson’s death and a couple of people moving down to Westminster, that’s an even higher number now, so we’ve got a huge amount of new blood. 

"That’s fantastic in that people look at things differently, there’s no ‘it’s aye been’. Instead, it’s a clash of ideas and they’ve got huge amounts of experience in other walks of life that they’re bringing into this place and some of the backgrounds and achievements of our MSPs are breath-taking. 

"I am so lucky to work with the team that I have but it’s challenging, too, because they maybe don’t have the street fighting part and this is quite a tough chamber. There’s a lot of people who have been involved in Scottish politics a long time that are our main opponents in here and it does mean we must have a tactical nous as well as a strategic and campaigning nous.

“Until I was elected, I hadn’t been a line manager,” she laughs. “I hadn’t had a single report, I didn’t manage anyone! I did have leadership experience, but in a different context. I’d been given some of the best leadership training in the world through the army officer training that I had through the territorial army, which is the same as regular army officer training, and I had to rely on that because that’s all I had in my back pocket.

"Now I would contend that it is different to give instructions to people in a uniformed context than it is to try and encourage volunteers to come with you on a journey so sometimes, particularly at the beginning, when I was trying to change the party as well as the offer that the party gave to the public, I would have to go slower than I would want to keep people with me.

“In the early years, I had to do all the really unglamorous work of changing the way in which we design policy, the way in which we funded ourselves, the way in which we managed the party, the way in which we identified candidates and assessed them, progressed them, supported them, the way in which we fought campaigns. 

“There was an enormous change programme and sometimes it’s very hard for people who have been the stalwarts of a party through its darkest, leanest times, to have some wee lassie that came in from, you know, the BBC, with all these great big ideas, having never done a hand’s turn of leaflet delivering in her life, telling them they were doing it wrong. You know, that’s tough! But I do think that there was a recognition within the party that just doing the same thing again and again would have the same result as we’d had previously.

“I think if you think back to the beginning, again, it was difficult for the youngest, newest member of a political party to become its leader, against the wishes of its majority of its elected representatives, and to try and lead a parliamentary team as well as lead a voluntary core. And you saw, particularly in the first wee while, there was a lot of noise off and unattributed quotes in newspapers but, you know, there was an element of having to prove myself.

"And I’m not trying to diminish it and I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard because it was, but you do serve at the pleasure of your members, you serve at their instruction and you serve with their permission, and you do have to prove yourself in politics, and if the membership decides that I’m no longer functioning in a way in which they can see progress for the party, then they are absolutely within their rights – and custodians of the party that will outlast any leader of the party –  to revoke my leadership.

"That’s the way in which the Conservative Party is set up, both north and south of the border and the membership has never been shy in protecting the interests of the wider party, as it should be.

"So, I realise that I hold this office only for so long as I can demonstrate progress within it. One of the things that’s very good in politics that can also be difficult is that you have an awful lot of measurables. You’ve got an ability to demonstrate in facts and figures and numbers a forward momentum. 

“And you know, there was nobody in Scottish politics, in commentary, or whatever, that thought that we could do what we have done in terms of becoming the main opposition here,” she tells me.

“I remember, it was a lobby press lunch, about a couple of months before the Holyrood election, where we said that was what we were going to aim at and even a week before, when we had our internal polling and we were trying to share that with journalists and say we thought we had our noses just in front of Labour, nobody believed us, nobody wanted to write the story.

"To be honest, even we surprised ourselves by the gap that was there!

"Again, last year [during the snap general election] we knew, and we were beginning to tell people that we think we can get between eight and 12 seats. In the event, we did even better than that and got 13 – although some of them were very close and we just missed out on winning – but again, there was no real belief that that could happen. 

“When I became leader in 2011, I still remember the best quote that was used by a commentator was not just that I was taking the worst job in Scottish politics but that I would be resuscitating a corpse. So, we have come a long way but the job now is to demonstrate that this isn’t a black swan moment and that there’s a foundation on which we can build.

“And the one thing that I keep telling people within the party is the one election that nobody talks about is actually the most important election for our future and that’s the local government elections we fought last year. We had more than 140 gains in councils across the country, we went to places like the Highlands where we’d never had a Conservative councillor before in their 100-year history to getting 10 in one night. In Glasgow we went from one to eight. 

“These are vitally important because having proper local champions in the place where they’re born and raised and work and know people, makes such a difference for us because part of the issue that I faced when I became leader was that because after 1997, when there weren’t any elected Conservatives in Scotland, our opponents wrote our history for us and we were painted as baby eaters that had shut this industry and shut that industry and so on.

"I remember my first election that I fought, in the Glasgow North East by-election, I was being told that the Tories had shut the railyards at Cowlairs and at St Rollox, or more precisely, that Thatcher had shut them. But they actually shut because they were making steam locomotives and the world moved to diesel and I think at the time they shut in the 60s, Margaret Thatcher could still have been an industrial chemist making the secret ingredient for Mr Whippy ice-cream – she certainly wasn’t in charge of the country – but this myth had taken hold about the evil Tories. And of course, it’s in your opponents’ interest to paint you as these different things, as un-Scottish, as not of the place, of being somehow ‘othered’. 

“As Tories, we’d been ‘othered’ for some time but having local representatives, people that you can see that are like you, that go to your church, that work in your factory, that live in your street, working hard for their community, do more to give us a platform for the future than even a good result at the general election or a good result in the Scottish Parliament one. They will be the platform on which we’ll grow and which we’ll build.”

Davidson has always had a bit of bombast and her critics have been quick to accuse her of having more style than substance which has, to be fair, been an easy label to stick, but there’s something more mature about her these days – something a little more humbled, more complete, that takes the edge off an almost unconscious cockiness.

And while everything remains about ‘Team Ruth’ – and she is most definitely the brand – she has had to learn that it can’t all be about her because that won’t take her party over the line.

“One of the issues I have is that those same commentators that said we couldn’t put on support across the country are now saying that actually, we’re only one trick ponies and it’s just all about the constitution.

"So, what I’ve got to do is flesh out that policy platform and this conference we’re having in March is going to be really important for us because it’s the first time in 30 years, maybe, that you’ve got a group of Scottish Conservatives getting together and saying, how do we form the next government of Scotland?

"That’s an ambitious belief that we’ve never allowed ourselves to have before and that means that yes, we’re looking at areas where you would traditionally expect Conservatives to look, things like law and order, things like the economy, but we’re also doing big strands at our conference on the environment and rural economies.

"We’re doing big strands in areas of social and public services. These are areas that would not ordinarily be associated with us but we recognise we’ve got to have a full policy provision to stand up in 2021 and say, ‘we are an alternative government for Scotland’. That’s the next step.”

Confidence is not something that Davidson has ever had in short supply but now she also has the results to back up her chutzpah, so when she says she has the first minister’s job in her sights for the 2021 Holyrood election, she is someone to be taken seriously. 

However, constant media speculation has Davidson’s next step as being more towards 10 Downing Street than Bute House. She says such conjecture is something of an irritation.

“Actually, it does sometimes grate a little bit because I think part of what we’ve talked about after the independence referendum is how we have to be better at telling the story of more union and one aspect of that is having strong voices outside of the House of Commons.

"And weirdly, the Labour Party gets this. When you look at what some of their big names are doing, people like Sadiq Khan, or look at people like Dan Jarvis, who has been tipped as a future leader and yet he’s wanting to put his name down to be the Sheffield mayor, or Andy Burnham – choosing to leave the House of Commons in order to get things done, I actually think that’s good for the UK. 

“If devolution is going to work, if this weird, piecemeal, not quite a sort of federal system that we have, this collection of countries that came together and has no written constitution, or at least, it doesn’t have a codified constitution in one document, but has always kind of muddled through and part of its muddling through has been part of its strength, then you actually have to have people that are able to have a platform, have influence, from outside that one building which is the House of Commons with a very small band of people of 650.

"And so, I do sometimes get a little bit irritated by Westminster commentators that think that going to the House of Commons must be what I’m aspiring to and thinking, ‘oh, it’s a shame for her, she’s not got there yet’, and I am like, ‘actually, chaps, I can walk to work in 40 minutes, it’s quite nice.’

“There was a Spectator piece around Christmas where I had, in that same interview, said on a minimum of four occasions, my job is here, I’m staying in Scotland.

"And I probably shouldn’t have played ball but they then led me down a level of about 17 hypotheticals to get to the, ‘well, yes, in that instance, I can’t categorically say no because I don’t know what I’m doing next week or whether I’m going to have enough socks to wear because I haven’t done a washing yet, never mind to tell you what I’m going to do in 20 years hence’ and then suddenly that was a splash – I had my eye on Westminster.

"So, that was quite chastening, I genuinely said four times to Fraser [Nelson, the Spectator editor] and James [Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor] that ‘no, my job is here’. I know what my job is, this is what I’m committed to, this is what I want to do.”

And while Davidson is unsuccessfully but persistently fending off claims that she is moving to No 10, she is simultaneously defending its current occupant with a similar vigour.

“I think it is very difficult as a woman in politics not to get riled by people who, frankly, should know better, and this is not a reflection on you, Mandy, but some of the commentators that we see in the UK that are getting very frothy mouthed about this, dismissing a female prime minister that’s holding the job, to start talking about which of the boys might elbow her out. I really do find that that grates with me immeasurably. 

“I don’t think it’s all about her being a woman but I do think, and I get how the bubble works because I was a journalist and I understand that everybody is looking for the story etc, but I do think the criticism is more pronounced because she’s a woman. 

“She’s got an amazing resilience that I am genuinely admiring of because I think that there are days that I would struggle to get out from under the duvet in the morning given the pressures she’s currently under. 

“And this is not to dodge the question at all but her MO isn’t one that worries about internecine squabbles and wee boys trying to elbow each other out the way for who comes next.”

Davidson has done a good job of disassociating herself from the more poisonous elements of her party. She has firmly identified as an ardent Remainer and deftly avoided real criticism or scrutiny about the more socially damaging policies emanating from her party at Westminster, but as Theresa May’s government tears itself apart over Europe, she has a difficult balancing act to traverse as she sets out her own policy agenda in the run-up to the 2021 Scottish elections, and with a backdrop of Brexit negotiated by her party. 

And it will be difficult campaigning on a ticket that Tories are normal people – just like you and me – when Jacob Rees-Mogg, a no-deal Brexiteer, an anti-abortionist, who is against gay marriage and a politician altogether out of step with the modern world, is tipped to be the next party leader. 

Even for a class-act like Davidson, that could be a hard sell to ordinary Scots. 

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