Today’s Times (£) reports the latest evidence that Ruth Davidson is catching up with Labour ahead of May’s Scottish elections.
This has led to some excited talk about the Conservatives becoming the official opposition in the next Scottish Parliament. This remains very unlikely, although it is astonishing enough that it isn’t impossible.
But it would be an injustice to Davidson to allow such speculation to inflate expectations and undermine a less spectacular, but still very good, result. So what is she actually shooting for?
Twenty seats, is the short answer.
Davidson’s stated intention is to get the Tories’ “best ever result” at Holyrood. Technically this is 19 seats, topping the 18 they took in 1999 and 2003, but the psychological impact of hitting the twenties pushes it up.
This would mark substantial progress from 2011, which is valuable in its own terms. It would also help to validate the entire Davidson project, which has thus far been short – despite an eye-watering near miss in a second seat in the 2015 election – of concrete evidence of progress.
In the 2011 leadership contest, she defeated Murdo Fraser who planned to split the Scottish Conservatives from the UK Party and found something new.
This was a counsel of despair – and a bad idea for many other reasons – but Davidson won on a different proposition: that the Tories needed to change their outlook, their attitudes, and their personnel, not their underlying philosophy or loyalty to Britain.
She has since become something of a star in the Party, and there are many far beyond Scotland who hope she pursues a Westminster career when her time as leader in Scotland is over.
But Annabel Goldie, Davidson’s predecessor, was popular too. As Alex Massie points out, there is in Scotland a big difference between being liked, and winning votes.
Some of those who opposed Fraser’s proposals fear that if the Tories fail to make progress in May, the question of splitting will come back with a vengeance.
If they can’t win with Scottish Labour on the ropes and so remarkable a leader, the argument runs, the game may truly be up.
As the polls stand, Davidson and her supporters have reasons to hope they’ve pulled off the advance they needed.
In line with their leader’s declaration that “the time for sackcloth and ashes is over”, their strategy combines her social justice credentials with unabashed pitches to pro-Trident, Unionist, tax-cutting voters.
With Labour offering tax rises to fund public services, both of the major parties are trying to shift the debate away from the constitution – which has left the SNP desperately looking for a reason to reject the devolution of fiscal powers to Holyrood.
Those two things – clear progress on their 2011 showing, and a shift in the political debate north of the border – are what the Scottish Conservatives are gunning for. Being the Opposition would be lovely, but it’s not the yardstick of success.
EDIT: It’s polls like this one that are getting people exited. Note how the last Westminster boundary review has hindered the Tories, too – Holyrood uses the pre-2005 boundaries, which have consistently given the Conservatives a handful of seats and give them six on the map below.
It does raise the question: if by some chance Labour and the Conservatives tie on seats… who is designated the Opposition?