Ruth Davidson has been in the national news an awful lot since the general election – and not just because the Scottish Conservatives delivered the one strong performance that have kept the Government in office.
In the aftermath of the shock result there has also been a lot of speculation about the Scottish leader’s interventions on Westminster issues, such as Brexit and a potential arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Some have even floated Davidson as a potential successor to Theresa May, an idea rightly scotched by Andy McIver on this site. She is undoubtedly ambitious but the Scottish Tories have their eye on another target: Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland.
Even a year ago, after the party’s astonishing 31-seat performance at the Scottish elections, that would have looked almost impossible. But if the SNP suffer heavy losses in 2021, which looks perfectly plausible, Davidson may find herself the leader of the largest pro-Union party in a Scottish Parliament with a pro-Union majority. That would put Labour in a spot.
This basic fact shouldn’t be overlooked when interpreting her interventions on reserved issues, either. There’s no denying that some parts of UK policy have caused the Scottish campaign problems, and with a lot of political capital in the bank it makes sense for Davidson to seek concessions that will demonstrate to her voters why having MPs that form part of a UK Government yields dividends.
Such concessions can probably be found in relatively low-cost areas, at least in part. The Scottish leader’s wider interventions on Brexit may also be an attempt to straddle the line – which she has, successfully, to date – between winning over Scotland’s Leave voters whilst not alienating the rest of Scotland.
Remember, for all the talk of having ‘it’s own manifesto’ Brexit is reserved and the party’s new Scottish MPs were elected on exactly the same mandate as those in the rest of the country: ruling out both the single market and the customs union.
Moreover, Edinburgh will realise that a substantial u-turn on Brexit is a recipe for a disastrous civil war – the very one the Party thought it had avoided – which would make it extraordinarily difficult for the Government to continue and invite a poll in the very worst of circumstances.
Another area people may be over-playing a split between London and Edinburgh is over the possibility of an agreement with the DUP, in defence of which Jeffrey Dudgeon, Northern Ireland’s pre-eminent gay rights campaigner, has written this morning.
Once again, making a clear stand on LGBT issues is entirely in accordance with Davidson’s principles and does no harm to her personal standing. But was it necessarily as harmful to a possible arrangement as some have cast it?
Attacks on the basis of the DUP’s equalities record were inevitable. By leading the charge herself Davidson made sure that Conservative credentials – and not just in Scotland – on this issue were on display, and afforded the Government the opportunity to make clear that there would be no backsliding on gay rights on the mainland without giving points to the opposition.
With 12 new MPs to defend, some with very small majorities indeed, it would be very surprising if the Scottish Conservatives were willing to put their best result since 1987 at risk by being cavalier about the potential collapse of the British Government and a return to the polls.
There’s no doubt that Davidson is now, even more so before, one of the Conservative Party’s stars and most prominent figures, not just in Scotland but across the UK. That’s good for the party and the Union – but it does perhaps encourage excessive speculation.
It seems very likely that rumours of each of these radical shifts in her strategy – becoming leader of the Conservative Party or somehow seceding from it – are mistaken. Davidson’s plan is the same now as it was last week: entrench the Tories as one of the two major parties in Scottish politics, and wrest Bute House from Nicola Sturgeon.