The rape clause will make it hard for Ruth Davidson to convince voters she's a different kind of Tory
Ruth Davidson walked into First Minister’s Questions last week, fresh from rubbing shoulders with one of the world’s richest philanthropists, and perhaps inspired by the spirit of Bill Gate’s generosity, determined to show off her party’s credentials for humanity with its policy towards international aid. She walked out of the chamber having been roundly shown up for her own culpability in the inhumanity of the Conservatives’ rape clause.
“Shame, shame on Ruth Davidson,” shouted the First Minister at Davidson when she refused to condemn the clause.
And things didn’t get much better outside with the sight of the other four party leaders standing in solidarity against the Tory government’s much criticised exemption to the new two-child cap on tax credits. Her unashamed success at uniting her four main opponents during an election campaign only highlighted how maladroit she was on this issue, for the usually photo-friendly leader of the Scottish Conservatives was in hiding.
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Ruth Davidson has made her mark by her energetic attempts at detoxifying the Tories in Scotland. And to an extent, sitting astride a bison, making laddish jokes laced with innuendo and having the balls to simply blast through any attempts to be pinned down on much more than standing up for the Union has worked. She has somehow managed to separate herself from some of the harder line Tory policies, avoided being too clear on any of her own, and even managed to set herself apart from some of the more xenophobic remarks made at the UK party conference earlier last year. But the rape clause has been a nemesis that no amount of funny photo ops can ever counter. And it is not going away.
And this matters right now, because with her snap election, Theresa May has bowled Davidson a googly with no time to make up. Up until now, Davidson has been on safe ground fighting in elections and referenda on the side of the Union and keeping her own arguments fairly policy-lite. That was her USP, and while it is conveniently forgotten that just two years ago she delivered the worst general election result in Scotland since records began, she did manage to double her number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in 2016, banging the well-worn Union drum that she has again deployed in the local council elections, but will find it much harder to pull off in this unscheduled UK-wide ballot.
And while Theresa May will have her own questions to answer as to why she has called an election that she said she wouldn’t have, on a referendum result that she campaigned against, it is Davidson who will have to stand on the doorsteps of Scotland with the potential to be continually harangued about why asking a woman to reveal details of rape and name a child born of that assault is anything other than a bad idea. No amount of Union Jack flag waving will now hide the fact that Davidson is part of that same party and will have to stand on its record, good or bad.
And that is a welfare record to be ashamed of. A record of introducing austerity policies which a UN inquiry concluded amounted to “systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities. A record which shows 900 disabled people are losing their Motability cars a week. A record of cutting housing benefit to the young and forcing them onto the streets. A record that quizzes benefit claimants on suicide attempts and a record of so-called welfare reforms that are so bad that Ken Loach made a film about them. And all this on top of a reviled bedroom tax, an exponential rise in zero-hour contracts, the lowest level of wage growth in 200 years and a sneaky, back-door U-turn on the numbers of lone child asylum seekers allowed into the country under the widely acclaimed Dubs amendment.
And then there are the things that have been hinted at and so far not yet done, like companies having to compile lists of immigrant workers, the NHS having to restrict the numbers of foreign doctors, tests for landlords on the ethnicity of their tenants and rules on immigration that led to UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn tweeting gleefully: “The number of policies Mrs May is lifting out of the UKIP manifesto is astonishing. Almost like we are in power but not in office!”
It was in 2002 that Theresa May got up at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth as the newly installed chairperson and stunned the party faithful by telling them that some people called them the “nasty party”. It has taken a long time and a concerted effort to shed itself of that skin. But 15 years on they are being labelled that again.
And if you want a glimpse of the future, look at her track record in just the nine months past and think what more could be done after an election that has simply been called to quash any opposition.
In a recent interview in this publication, SNP Brexit minister Mike Russell said he believed Ruth Davidson – like Michael Forsyth before her – was (wrongly) convinced that what Scotland needs is a more “muscular Conservatism”. Reaction to the rape clause would suggest otherwise. Davidson was at her most effective when voters could believe that she was a different kind of Tory. In an election that isn’t just about retaining the Union and more about the record of a Tory Prime Minister, it might be harder to retain that artifice of separation.