Earlier this week, the press reported the startling news that not only was Ruth Davidson polling more highly amongst Scots than Nicola Sturgeon, but so was Theresa May.
This highlights the very important, time-limited opportunity the Prime Minister has to make a first impression in Scotland on her own terms, and build a direct relationship with Scottish voters.
Despite the many distractions posed by Government, not least those she has created herself, it’s essential that May seizes this opportunity.
She must above all else resist the urge to outsource Scotland wholesale to Ruth Davidson. The Scottish Conservative leader has proven a formidable champion of the conservative and unionist causes north of the border, and helped oversee the start of a Tory revival many had given up hope of seeing.
But one thing Davidson is not is a representative of the British Government and state, which are so central to the British nation.
Her successes are very important, but they do not rehabilitate the British dimension in Scottish political life that has been so assiduously eroded by decades of Labour and SNP complaints about the “democratic deficit”.
That job falls to Theresa May, and Brexit makes it more important than ever.
As I wrote last week, the EU vote does not currently seem to have been playing out nearly so badly for the Union as many on the Remain side predicted.
There’s disagreement about why this is: I posited that it was simply difficult to see how Brexit made it anything other than more difficult for the separatists to win over swing voters.
Torcuil Crighton argues in the Daily Record that the First Minister lacked the courage to seize the moment and try to bounce Westminster into a second referendum in the immediate aftermath of the vote, hoping for a surprise result in the heat of the moment.
On the other hand Alex Massie, keeper of the flame of Europhile unionist pessimism, believes that blood may not be rushing to the heads of the Scottish electorate but it will get there eventually, and that they will only disregard the blunt economic realities of post-Brexit independence once those details are spelled out.
But whilst they might not be seeing the hoped-for shift in public opinion yet, it’s clear the SNP want to cite Brexit as the latest evidence for the “democratic deficit” myth.
In response, unionists will be forced to do something they have fallen out of the habit of doing and often seem uncomfortable trying: defending the rightness and legitimacy of British-level decision making, even when Scotland voted the other way.
Not that this involves talking constantly about the EU. Rather, it means that British ministers – and the Prime Minister most of all – should make a habit of regular visits to Scotland (and Wales, and Northern Ireland), take an active interest in local issues there, and build direct relationships with voters.
They should do this so often that a visit to Scotland by May is no longer newsworthy in itself (although what she does in Scotland ought to be). Such visits also ought not to be heralded by a visit to Sturgeon, as if the Prime Minister were on an overseas tour.
They may also have a political dividend, even if they’re more often than not governmental in nature: the Prime Minister is usually news, and my own experience in Northern Ireland is that interest from national figures can lift a local campaign.
After asking about for a few suggestions as to what Number Ten could cover on such trips, I turned up some useful ideas, including a visit to Aberdeen to discuss the oil industry’s troubles and meetings with Glasgow leaders about a rail link between that city and its airport, which is apparently being delayed by foot-dragging on the part of an SNP-influenced quango.
Not that Brexit should be neglected entirely: as I wrote previously, four in ten Scots voted Leave and with official Scotland almost uniformly pro-Remain a practical, accepting approach to leaving the EU could win the Tories new converts from this un-fished pool. A visit to the ardently pro-Leave Scottish Fishermen’s Federation might provide a welcoming backdrop to such a visit.
There are almost certainly a wide variety of other instances and places where the Government can emphasise, in Scotland, it’s interest in infrastructure, industrial policy, and making Brexit work – including places where there is a Tory vote to nurture.
Devolution might severely limit the number of areas in which a UK politician can engage in Scotland – but only for the timid. Ministers should not be afraid to contrast how Westminster and Holyrood are tackling different policy challenges, praise Scottish institutions where they are taking the lead, and criticise Scottish Government policies where they are producing poorer results.
This sort of comparative criticism will likely elicit squeals of outrage, both from capital-N Nationalists and, as Michael Gove discovered, a certain sort of fifth-rate unionist politician.
But it is essential if devolution is not to rob us of the “pooling and sharing” of wisdom and experience that is afforded when we make decisions together in Westminster – and also helps combat the tendency of devolved administrations to conflate themselves with the nations they govern.
Downing Street does not have time to waste: the SNP will already be trying to frame May as simply another remote and foreign potentate. If she is to live up to her words on the steps of Number Ten, and govern the entire nation as the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Prime Minister must build her own direct relationship with the Scotland.