Ruth Davidson should have been Tory leader. Instead, she’s on the sidelines

Published by The Guardian (29th August, 2019)

The resignation of a Scottish Tory leader does not tend to be seismic political news. I doubt, for instance, many people south of the border could recall the name of the last woman to stand down from this post eight years ago. Yet Ruth Davidson has always been different, from her personal story to her style of politics – and this is why her  decision to step back from the frontline has such immense significance for both the Conservative party and the future of the union.

Davidson was a breath of fresh air after taking over the post from the doughty Annabel Goldie, narrowly grabbing the leadership just months after becoming an MSP. She quickly attracted attention as someone who was charming, pugnacious and unusually witty for a politician, seemingly content in her own skin, comfortable on social media, and unconcerned about exposing personal contradictions as a gay, Christian, Tory promoting her party in a place where the brand had become poison.

She was seen as an embodiment of David Cameron’s flawed modernisation efforts. Yet Davidson is a mixture of liberalism on issues such as migration and social mores, combined with more traditional Tory views on crime, punishment and, above all, protection of the union. She won respect by dragging her party back from the graveside, beating Labour into third place in Scottish parliamentary elections before saving Theresa May’s skin with 13 Tory MPs in the 2017 election debacle.

But thanks to the ongoing ruptures of Brexit and the party’s capture by zealots under the charlatan-in-chief Boris Johnson, all her efforts are likely to be ruined. A devout remainer, she was nevertheless loyal to May’s dismal attempts to find a compromise solution while watching Westminster’s paralysis and strife with horror. Now the Tory party has lurched hard right, the prime minister is reviving its toxicity in Scotland, and her precious union is being endangered by the reckless behaviour of the fanatical cabal that has taken over Downing Street.

Davidson is pleading personal reasons for her departure after the birth of her baby. No doubt this has altered focus and forced a fresh look at life’s priorities. Yet no one should be fooled. Her efforts to salvage the Tory party in Scotland and save the union are being torn asunder. Johnson is the embodiment of everything she and so many fellow Scots despise, with his upper-class arrogance, his ceaseless lies and his contempt for Brussels. She was also furious when David Mundell, her friend and ally as Scottish secretary, became a victim of the new prime minister’s cabinet cull.

She has rightly made clear her intense dislike for a disastrous no-deal exit from the European Union. Her honourable resignation, while highly regrettable, contrasts favourably with all those other sleazy self-identifying modernisers who so readily swallowed principles to cling on to senior jobs, despite speaking out on the dangers of no deal and prorogation of parliament. The likes of Matt Hancock, Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan have demeaned themselves beyond repair while also doing so much to corrode even more the public’s declining trust in politics.

Davidson’s strength is her ability to present herself to voters as a real person, filled with human contradictions and leavened by wit. It says much about the state of our politics that this makes her a rare creature in that world, like Labour’s Jess Phillips or fellow Tory Rory Stewart. Many hoped she might transfer her star quality to Westminster as national leader, thwarting Johnson’s ambition. Instead she joins a small band of sidelined Tories heroically resisting their party’s transformation from traditional conservatism, with its belief in constitutional propriety and fiscal responsibility, into a small-minded populist force defined by nationalism.

Look now at the Tory party under its loathsome leader, clearly prepared to stop at nothing to protect himself and drive through his extreme vision of Brexit. The cowardly Johnson filled his cabinet with sycophants, turncoats and ultras, his strings being pulled by a puppet-master strategist who seems contemptuous of both Whitehall and Westminster. The situation is so grim that Lord Kerslake, a former civil service chief, has warned former colleagues to consider putting ‘stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day’.

This is why Davidson’s resignation marks a significant moment. The union, already threatened by the lethal combination of Brexit and Johnson, is left weaker without its most valiant defender as the divisive creed of nationalism surges on both sides of the border. She was also the final hope of moderates still clinging to the concept of a modernised Tory party fighting on the centre ground for younger, female and ethnic minority voters. Instead the Tory party has lost its last liberal, progressive voice in a position of influence – and the entire country is left weaker as a result.

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