There's something disconcerting about the way the UK Conservatives relate to Ruth Davidson
Ruth Davidson was, undoubtedly, the star attraction at the UK Tory party conference. Not a difficult accolade to pull-off, given the moribund state of the party, but the subsequent clamour for her to take the fastest route to No 10 reveals the dysfunction at the heart of this government.
Former Conservative adviser Lord Daniel Finkelstein wrote a column for The Times last week claiming that if the Tories want to win, “they’ll send for Ruth”. He said that most people at the Manchester conference saw a winner and he waxed lyrical about why she should be the next PM.
“She is tough, fresh, original and her performance in Scotland has been amazing,” he gushed. “She has charisma and wit and is a natural on TV…”
To qualify in the great Theresa takeover, Davidson then, according to Finkelstein, can eschew the normal process. She doesn’t even need to be a Westminster MP. No matter, says Finkelstein. Break the rules. Make a new set. But get her in.
No disrespect to Ruth, but what exactly has she done?
On the face it, she has simply had to be her. And that often means feeding into the sado-masochistic tendencies of a party that needs to be told it is bad, for it to feel better. Who needs critics when one of your own will tell you to ‘man up’, to shake yourself out of a ‘nervous breakdown’ or to climb out of the ‘psychodrama’ of your own making?
They love it. They love being told what for.
But there’s something downright weird about a party so out of love with itself that it covets the brash, the bold and the downright rude, as if being metaphorically spanked takes the pain away of just being rubbish.
And for the robotic Theresa May, having Ruth Davidson as a bestie makes up for all those lonely times she has stood on the side-lines looking in. Popularity could, after all, be contagious.
But at least May has some background. She has run departments, the party, she knows the people and the politics. May has a hinterland, just not the personality. She simply shouldn’t have been PM.
Davidson, meanwhile, has risen without real scrutiny. And she has left behind casualties in her own ambition. Macaskill and Donn are two names carved on the Davidson career ladder. And while both cost the party dear, that must have seemed a price worth paying. But why?
What is it about Ruth that the party so desires?
Is it that all-important authenticity, that ability to be extraordinary while assuming normality? That undefinable thing that all parties are looking for? And does it trump policies, substance and political heft?
I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something disconcerting in the way the UK party relates to Davidson that makes me bristle, like she’s something from a cheap novelty store that you can admire for its garishness but wouldn’t display on the mantelpiece.
It reminds me of David Cameron’s way of putting his arm around Annabel Goldie and calling her ‘Aunty Bella’, as if she was from central casting and should be handled as a quaint curiosity rather than a woman of his equal.
Did Theresa May really believe it when she held Davidson’s arms aloft and said, ‘together we saved the Union’ or was she just humouring the crowds?
The truth is that almost at the turn of a dime Davidson’s fortunes have transformed. Based on a simple but brilliant slogan of ‘no to a second referendum’, she gave the party its best result in decades and increased her tally from just one MP to 13 and is now being hailed as a future PM.
There is also an assumption that 39-year-old Davidson will bring with her the youth vote and keep the Tories in power. But that ignores the facts – just 13 per cent of the Scottish Tory vote in the last election was from the under-35s and polls suggest less than 10 per cent of young people would vote Tory in the next Holyrood election.
Forgotten, too, is the fact that in 2015 she presided over the worst election result for the Tories in Scotland since records began. But for now, she’s a True-Blue saviour who’s secured Theresa May’s stay in No 10.
The snap election came hard on the heels of the local government elections, which saw the Tories exceed expectations and followed on from last year’s Scottish Parliament ballot in which the SNP lost its majority, put the Tories ahead of Labour to become the main opposition at Holyrood, and prompted Davidson to boast that she had put Sturgeon’s government on notice to quit.
And because politics is all about momentum, Sturgeon goes into this weekend’s SNP conference with, inevitably, much of the commentary focused on the rise of Davidson and the fall or flatlining of the SNP.
But like much in politics, nothing is quite as it seems.
The SNP has won nine out of the ten elections it has fought. Sturgeon remains the most popular political leader in Scotland and leads a party with twice as many MSPs and three times as many MPs as the Scottish Tories.
Davidson can get cheap laughs by saying that Corbyn hasn’t even won a raffle, but on that logic, neither has she. The truth is, the Tories in Scotland trail even behind a leaderless Labour Party in voting intentions for the next Holyrood poll.
So is Ruth really the leader the UK party is looking for?