While Brexit is a tricky issue for the Conservatives, Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson seems to be on more secure ground when opposing independence, writes Ian Swanson
WHEN Ruth Davidson went off on maternity leave back in October, she must have hoped that by the time she returned to her duties as Scottish Conservatives leader the whole business of Brexit would be done and dusted.
No such luck. Seven months on, the UK’s departure from the EU is still pending – and still dominating politics throughout the UK.
Brexit has always been an awkward issue for Ms Davidson, who campaigned enthusiastically for Remain, clashing memorably with fellow Conservative Boris Johnson on TV, but she has since supported Theresa May’s deal.
Having previously warned about the threat to Scottish jobs from Brexit, her message now, in her conference speech at the weekend, is “get Brexit sorted, get a deal over the line and let Britain move on”.
Scotland did not have local elections last week, but the results from south of the border suggested the delay and uncertainty over Brexit are hurting the Tories at the ballot box. Labour, who should have benefited, performed poorly too, while the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens did well – but the Conservatives took the brunt of voters’ anger, losing a massive 1330 seats.
Despite Ms Davidson leading her party to become the main opposition at Holyrood in 2016 and winning the second most Scottish seats at Westminster in 2017, a poll for the European elections on May 23 shows the Scottish Tories in fourth place with just 10 per cent of the vote and at risk of losing their one MEP.
The SNP has a lead of up to 25 per cent for Holyrood and Westminster. It’s not the happiest picture for a party leader to come back to. But as well as Brexit, the other issue which refuses to go away is, of course, independence and the prospect of another referendum.
On this, Ms Davidson feels on more secure ground. It was the promise to resist a second referendum which gave her campaign focus in 2016 and helped her to bring about the revival in Tory fortunes.
So Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement a couple of weeks ago that she wants indyref2 to take place before the next Holyrood elections in 2021 could be seen as an unintentional ‘welcome back’ present for Ms Davidson.
It gives her a clear big issue to seize on and rally her supporters around – why get entangled in the mess of Brexit when there is independence to attack instead?
She seems keen, however, not to allow stopping another referendum to be her one and only policy. She used her conference speech to launch the idea of replacing the school leaving age of 16 with a requirement for young people stay in education until at least 18 – or take up a “structured apprenticeship” or training place if they want to go into work.
She also proposed a new Scottish Exporting Institute and a new Economic Growth Fund to support venture capitalists looking to invest in Scotland.
The course of British politics during her maternity leave – particularly the unending Brexit saga and the internal Tory divisions – will surely only confirm Ms Davidson in her stated position that she is not interested in a move to Westminster.
But circumstances do not necessarily look all that promising for what she does want to do – make the Tories the biggest party at Holyrood at the next Scottish Parliament elections and take over at Bute House.