This morning’s Daily Telegraph carries an op-ed from Ruth Davidson entitled ‘Scotland can succeed inside the UK and outside the EU’, teeing up a speech she will give today to foreign diplomats emphasising the need for a friendly, open Britain post-Brexit.
As leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Davidson was a high-profile campaigner in the Remain cause, and the Scottish political establishment was almost uniformly in that camp – although Scotland herself was not, as Davidson has pointed out.
Many pro-EU commentators, including prominent pro-UK Scots, argued that a Leave victory would trigger the breakup of the United Kingdom. This site took issue with that thesis, but the fear was real enough.
All of this being the case, one might have expected Davidson to take a serious hit after the referendum. And at one point it looked like this might be the case: her standing in our Cabinet league table slumped 17 points between June, when her stock soared after a great Scottish election result, to (an admittedly still very impressive) +67 in our first post-Brexit survey.
Yet this month’s survey finds the Scottish Tory leader back at the top with a truly astonishing score of +92, the highest on the table and more than a point ahead of Theresa May.
This resurgence reflects the fact that, so far at least, Davidson is playing her post-Brexit hand well, not only in terms of the EU but by tying it into her broader strategy.
Broadly speaking, in terms of inter-party combat the Scottish Conservative plan can be boiled down to a couple of points: stick it to the SNP and squeeze the life out of Labour.
Playing up to one of the instinctive strengths of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Davidson is working very hard to make the Tories the natural home of unionist voters who want, at the very least, firm opposition to the SNP at Holyrood, and somebody who vocally shares their deep antipathy to another referendum.
Both circumstances and her opponents have conspired to help this strategy: by putting independence front and centre the SNP are alienating a hefty, non-nationalist chunk of their support, with tantalising electoral implications.
Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, on the other hand, has been so equivocal on the constitutional question that major donors are turning off the tap to Scottish Labour, leaving the rock-solidly unionist element of Labour support (probably a good chunk of the remnant) potentially receptive to a moderate, modern, avowedly unionist Tory alternative.
But there’s also a third tribe of the politically homeless wandering Scotland at the moment: the more than a million Scots who voted Leave.
Almost four in ten Scots voted to quit the European Union in June. If you were to allow your understanding of Scotland to be mediated entirely by Scotland’s politicians and journalists that would seem an unthinkable number – which is probably an excellent argument for not doing that.
Some of these will have been separatist voters taking the Europhile doom-mongers at their word, but not all of them. Scottish attitudes towards the EU are not nearly so divergent from England as they are often portrayed, and even SNP voters, when polled, prioritise controlling immigration over maintaining single market access.
Both Nicola Sturgeon and Dugdale are trying to paint the Tories as “the Brexit party”, but this strategy seems very short-sighted. It’s an implausible deterrent to Remainers, given how high-profile a champion of their cause Davidson was, but could well give an unrepresented tranche of Scottish opinion a reason to give the Conservatives another look.
It is surely democratically unsustainable to have no party in Holyrood representing the preferences of nearly 40 per cent of the population on one of the great issues of the age. With UKIP nowhere in Scotland, somebody needs to represent the Brexiteers.
Now that Brexit is happening Davidson doesn’t even need to choose sides: the Tories can bring sensible Remain and Leave voters together by being the first party to get over the outcome, respect the result, and start trying to find pragmatic ways to make the best of it.
It’s early days yet, but so far the aftermath of the referendum has vindicated those of us bullish about the Union’s robustness, and this seems to have wrong footed all of the Tories’ opponents.
The First Minister has charged out onto some very tricky ground by stoking up the nationalist fire after the vote, only to find the polls haven’t followed her. Support for independence hasn’t risen, and support for another vote has fallen.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats initially rowed in behind Sturgeon in a sort of ‘Scottish Front’ to explore how Holyrood should react to the vote, only to be forced to bail out once it became belatedly apparent that it was a front for another SNP independence drive.
Only the Conservatives have come out of the gates with a clear message – respect the result, stop making damaging mischief, we can make a success of this – and an equally clear political strategy. As a result, Labour is continuing to implode and Davidson has, astonishingly, higher net popularity scores than Sturgeon. So far, it seems, so good.