I was quite shocked by the news that Ruth Davidson has quit as leader of the Scottish Conservatives after nearly eight years in the role. She led the Scottish Tories through two general elections, two referendum campaigns, two local elections and a Scottish Parliament election, increasing the party’s fortunes each time. Not long ago she was being talked about as a future First Minister of Scotland or even a Cabinet minister, but now it looks like the Tory revival of 2016/2017 was a short-lived bubble which is set to burst quite soon.
I first joined the Tories in January 2015 when the party was a broad church; pro-immigration and economically liberal, they were in favour of gay marriage but also family values and tax cuts for married couples. This formula managed to keep the likes of Anna Soubry and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the same party.
This all changed with the EU referendum campaign in 2016 which divided the Scottish and English branches of the party between the home county dwelling social conservatives and the liberal metropolitan elite. Ruth Davidson campaigned vigorously to Remain as did the majority of Scottish Conservatives. She strongly attacked the promises made by the Leave campaign. Independence was also a massive issue during the EU referendum campaign in Scotland, with the SNP saying that a UK vote in favour of Brexit would be grounds to hold another referendum on Scottish independence. Ruth Davidson presented herself as the last line of defence against another referendum. This strategy doubled her representation in the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and increased Scottish Tory representation in Westminster by 12 in 2017.
However, as I recall from my experiences as a party member, this success led to a mass influx of former Liberal Democrat and Labour members who saw their own parties falling apart in Scotland, and believed that the best way to advance their own political careers was to join the Scottish Conservatives. This led the party in a very liberal direction which Ruth Davidson seemed to be comfortable with, as she stands on the ultra-liberal, pro-Remain end of the party anyway. So there was a marginalisation of genuine conservatives who were often dismissed as “too extreme” or “out of touch with Scotland”. As a supporter of a no-deal Brexit, I felt marginalised, and that the socially liberal wing of the party was being given preferential treatment and put into positions of power and responsibility over the rest of us. Only one Scottish Conservative MP actually campaigned for Brexit at the time of the referendum: Ross Thomson of Aberdeen South.
Ruth Davidson’s long absence due to maternity leave in 2018 left the party without a leader. When she returned she made clear her opposition to Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister and backed Jeremy Hunt instead. I accept that this was within her rights, but then after Johnson became Prime Minister, she undermined his negotiating position by saying she would not back no-deal under any circumstances. It was then that I thought it was time for her to go.
Without Ruth Davidson, I think the Scottish Conservatives are doomed. I do not see anyone in the Scottish Tories who stands out as a future leader. After the next election they are likely to lose all their seats and it will probably take them at least a decade to get back to where they were in 2017. But at least they can go back to first principles and heal the rift Ruth Davidson brought to the party.
Image credit: Scottish Parliament, image from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en