Ian Swanson: Ruth Davidson’s rebels might wreck revival she seeks

Ruth Davidson has certainly managed to advance the Tories' fortunes north of the Border. Picture: PA
Ruth Davidson has certainly managed to advance the Tories' fortunes north of the Border. Picture: PA
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RUTH Davidson heads for her party conference in Aberdeen at the end of this week with big ambitions.

The Scottish Tory leader has previously dismissed speculation over a bid to succeed Theresa May by insisting her priority is to become the next First Minister of Scotland.

And now she is hailing this weekend’s conference as the launch of the Tories’ attempt to win power at Holyrood.

She said: “It’s the first time in 30 years maybe that you’ve got a group of Scottish Conservatives getting together and saying ‘How do we form the next government of Scotland?’. That’s an ambitious belief that we have never allowed ­ourselves to have before.”

Ms Davidson has certainly managed to advance the Tories’ fortunes ­dramatically since she took over as leader.

From the wipeout in 1997, when the Conservatives were left with no ­Scottish MPs, and years of stagnation after devolution, she took the party to second place at the 2016 Holyrood elections and then also at the 2017 Westminster elections.

Aiming for first place is the logical next target. But how realistic it is remains a matter for debate.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives bid to become next Scottish Government

Has Scotland really abandoned its long-held antipathy to the Tories to such an extent that it would now be ready to elect them into government? Has the legacy of Thatcherism, the poll tax and the dismantling of traditional industries faded into the past enough to allow the party back into power?

Ms Davidson achieved much of her success on the promise of providing strong opposition to the SNP and ­halting any move to hold a ­second independence referendum. To be given an opportunity to govern she might have to convince voters about the merit of her policies – and that could be more difficult.

The SNP may no longer be quite as new and shiny as it once was, but it still has a decisive lead in the polls. And Labour, whom the Tories overtook, has been doing better too. Ms Davidson also has a few problems of her own, not least the embarrassment of four of the Scottish Tory MPs breaking ranks with her over Brexit.

READ MORE: Brian Monteith: Why Ruth Davidson must oppose the Customs Union

During the 2016 EU referendum, Ms Davidson put in an impressive performance when she took on arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson in a televised debate.

But the Brexit result left her in a tricky position, having to support the UK Government while trying to stick to her own pro-EU principles.

The election of 13 Scottish Tory MPs last June strengthened her hand, especially given Mrs May’s failure to win a majority.

But last week three of them signed a letter drawn up by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s pro-Leave European Reform Group, calling for a clean break with the EU – and another said he agreed with it too.

That undermined the image of a united Scottish Tory bloc at Westminster, ready to follow Ms Davidson’s lead. The Tories’ revival in Scotland owed a lot to Ms Davidson’s personal image as a straight-talking, down-to-earth modern woman with a brand of politics different from the stereotypical Conservative.

If that is now undermined by some of her MPs identifying with the extreme right of the party and turning their backs on Ms Davidson’s efforts at restyling the Scottish Tories, it will surely set back any prospect of the party returning to power.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com