Today’s Daily Record reports that Ruth Davidson will not resign her post as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in the event that they fail to achieve their (ambitious) goal of overtaking Labour to become the largest opposition party in Holyrood.
This is wise. As I explained in February, the Tories are trying to tread a fine line between motivating the troops and swing voters on the one hand, and dangerously inflating expectations on the other. Whilst overtaking Labour is an eye-catching goal, securing their “best ever performance” of twenty seats remains the critical objective.
(None of which is to say that they’re ruling it out: Tory canvassers have reportedly found Labour support simply evaporating all over Scotland. This isn’t all flowing the Tories’ way by any measure, but it doesn’t need to.)
Davidson also remains by far the strongest asset her party has – to the extent that she is mimicking the SNP and putting her own name on her party’s regional ballot slot – and it’s hard to see what, if anything, her stepping down would achieve. Rebuilding a party in the condition of the Scottish Conservatives was always going to be a long-term project.
Beyond safeguarding her leadership, however, expectations management is also timely due to some recent polls showing much less favourable results for Davidson’s party than most of those in the last couple of months.
This has coincided with a few polls starting to show UKIP breaking into the Scottish Parliament for the first time (although more polls still show them not doing do). Some Scottish Tories fear the EU referendum might give the People’s Army an unexpected headwind and concede that any UKIP MSPs will come at the Tories’ expense.
However their canvassing suggests that the party’s current seat-projection surge is an artefact of the huge amount of coverage received by the announcement of the referendum: the EU is not a big debate north of the border and UKIP’s ground game is reportedly non-existent.
Another setback, after several months of looking to be on the front foot, came last week when Davidson had to abandon a much-heralded plan to contest the coming Scottish Parliament election as a tax-cutting party.
This is apparently due to George Osborne planning deeper cuts in his upcoming Budget than the Scottish Conservatives had been counting on, which would reduce Holyrood’s budget and make further tax cuts a trickier sell.
Yet Tories on the ground point out that they already have plenty of “clear blue water” between their position and the rest of the pack. As the only party not proposing to increase taxes, they can reap the rewards of offering a less burdensome tax regime without the difficulty either of under-bidding the Chancellor or identifying an extra layer of departmental cuts.
Dropping the scheme may also make it easier for Davidson to woo unionist Labour voters, attracted by the prospect of a strong opposition to the SNP and dismayed by their party’s softening stance on the Union. If the Prime Minister’s speech was anything to go by, this is more than ever the critical thrust of the Conservatives’ 2016 campaign.