There are likely very few news stories which could have made much of an impact yesterday over the roar of Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. But word of the imminent resignation of Ruth Davidson was one of them.
In both her resignation letter and her televised statement, the Scottish Conservative leader has chosen to play down her differences with the Prime Minister as the cause of her decision – although there are more than enough people playing it up. Going further, she says that in her private letter to Johnson she thanked him for his commitment to the Union.
Of course, there is no doubt that this relationship has nonetheless played an important role in this decision. There was a reason she set herself against his becoming Prime Minister, and whilst Davidson is gone the UK party still needs – indeed, now more than ever – to address its Scottish challenges.
Nonetheless, her prima facie explanation is entirely reasonable. The tumultuous period of British politics kicked off by the 2014 Scottish referedum shows no sign of ending. A general election, a Scottish election, and perhaps another independence referendum – or even another EU one – all loom on the horizon. Having served as leader through one of each Davidson knows full well what those campaigns will demand, and has the self-awareness to recognise that she doesn’t want to fight them.
This need not be the end of her political career. Although she has only said she intends to serve as MSP for Edinburgh Central until 2021, Davidson is young and talented and there is nothing to preclude her returning to the fray at a later date. In particular in the event of another independence referendum sometime in the 2020s, after she has had a few years out of the front line, it is not impossible to imagine her answering the ultimate call of duty to lead that fight. If Alistair Darling did could rejoin the fray, she can.
In the meanwhile, the question arises as to the future of the Scottish Conservatives. The upcoming leadership election will likely be a battle between some revived form of Murdo Fraser’s proposal to split the Party – which remains for all its originator’s good intentions a very bad idea for the Union – and the alternative, especially as there is apparently no succession plan from the Davidsonites. Crucial to this question is that of whether or not the Party can succeed without her.
Davidson has undoubtedly played an instrumental role in the revival of the Party in Scotland. Stephen Daisley aptly summarises this in the Spectator:
“Elected leader in 2011, Davidson slogged her guts out turning a moribund rump with little support outside Scotland’s rural south to the main opposition in the Scottish Parliament and the second largest Scottish contingent at Westminster. She doubled the number of Tory MSPs in a single election and, a year later, took their haul of MPs from one to 13. Davidson was also instrumental in defeating the SNP in the 2014 independence referendum and in successfully fending off Sturgeon’s attempts to revive the issue over the past five years.”
But whilst this might be the truth, it is not the whole truth. It is important not to allow recognition of Davidson’s achievements to turn into myth-making and a counsel of despair for the rest of the party.
After all, Davidson had been leader for four years by the time of the 2015 election, at which the Conservatives won only their lone seat in Scotland. Likewise the past couple of years have been marked by a degree of strategic drift, with both Davidson and Mundell u-turning over the backstop and their closest parliamentary allies colluding against the Government over “post-Brexit devolved powers”, a move which appears to have won them little nationalist support but poses a great danger to the Union.
The sweet spot of ‘Project Ruth’, if Tim Shipman’s Fall Out is accurate, fell between 2015 and 2017, when Davidson’s first-rate talents as a communicator and campaigner were augmented by a support team which added to her tactical instincts a huge capacity for data-led, strategic thinking. The break-up of this team, as much as unfavourable developments in wider politics, must be recognised as a factor in the latter stalling of the Tories’ forward momentum in Scotland.
Furthermore, it would be a gross disservice to Davidson’s legacy to imagine that her departure puts the Party back where it started in 2011. It has hugely expanded its representation not only in Westminster and Holyrood but in local government, giving the Conservatives hundreds of local advocates and on-the-ground intelligence. The Labour Party in Scotland is still dying, and recent statements by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have only affirmed that they cannot be trusted by pro-UK voters.
So Scottish Tories must not allow themselves to sink back into the Slough of Despond from which their leader spent eight years digging them out. Davidson has bequeathed them a far stronger party than she inherited herself, and her would-be successors do neither her or the membership any favours if they treat her achievements as transient things, held together only by a sort of personal magic.