Scottish Tories look to Ruth Davidson as the leader of an ‘alternative government’

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Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson
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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

    Newly elected Scottish Conservative MPs say they “saved the day” for Theresa May. Scottish Tories look to Ruth Davidson as leader of an “alternative government”. New MPs pledge to make their voice heard on Brexit. Rebellion from just seven of the 12 new Scottish Tory MPs could defeat the government.

LONDON – While last month’s general election result was disastrous for Theresa May’s government, it could have been far worse.

Whereas the Conservatives lost seats across England and Wales, in Scotland they gained 12 seats, capping a meteoric rise for the party over recent years and ultimately saving Theresa May from what would otherwise have been the end of her premiership.

Thanks to the leadership of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have gone from being a party on the verge of extinction in Scotland, to being the one remaining glimmer of light for a party desperate to renew itself and avoid what it sees as the dark prospect of a Corbyn-led government.

So how did they get here? Business Insider has spoken to Scottish Conservative MPs, MSPs and councillors and activists to understand the appeal of Davidson and the rise of the Scottish blues.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Ruth”

With many Conservatives now looking to Davidson as a possible future leader of the party, one of the Conservatives new Scottish MPs, Andrew Bowie, is clear where the credit for their Scottish election result lies.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Ruth, 100%,” he tells me, adding that he is so confident that she will be first minister of Scotland in 2021 that he bet me £10 on the issue.

Stephen Kerr, newly-elected Conservative MP for Stirling agrees: “Ruth Davidson is our most remarkable politician,” he says.

“She’s more than a footnote in the history of modern Scotland and I think that she embodies the spirit of the majority of the people of Scotland.”

Forth Bridge

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Ruth Davidson (C) with Scottish Conservative activists.
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Reuters

For many, Davidson has become an alternative leader for the party.

“Ruth Davidson is by far the most charismatic and engaging leader in Scotland,” Liam Kerr, MSP for North East Scotland and shadow cabinet secretary for justice at Holyrood, tells me.

“Ruth connects with the people of Scotland better, it’s like she’s running an alternative government

It’s like [Davidson’s] running an alternative government

… she’s a great leader, and we cannot move away from how important that has been.”

For Bowie, who drinks a can of Irn Bru, while speaking to me, Davidson’s success is no great surprise.

“It might come as a surprise to people down here that the Scottish Conservatives are back in force but it has not come as a surprise to us in Scotland.

“We have been working our way back to that position of strength for some time now,” he said, adding “to many people down here Ruth [Davidson] is new, but Ruth became leader of the Scottish Conservatives in 2011.”

Scottish Tories “saved the day” for May

The difference between the party’s performance in Scotland and their performance south of the border is not lost on the new MPs.

“The success we had in Scotland balanced out the disappointments that they had in England and there is widespread recognition, starting with the prime minister, that the Scottish Conservative MPs saved the day,” Stephen Kerr tells me.

“That’s not lost on us either by the way,” he added.

Theresa May and Ruth Davidson

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Theresa May and Ruth Davidson
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Dan Kitwood / Getty

Kerr’s answer hints at the power that the new Scottish Tories now have.

Following May’s failure to win a majority, it would take a rebellion of just seven Conservative MPs to defeat the government, despite the confidence and supply deal with the DUP.

“By nature of the parliamentary arithmetic the Scottish Conservative group here in many ways has kept the Conservatives in government,” Stephen Kerr said.

The Scottish Conservative group has kept the Conservatives in government

He added: “I think that backbench Conservative MPs generally are aware of the responsibility they’ve got in terms of the government and its progress for the next 5 years. And we as Scottish Conservatives are acutely aware of that.”

Bowie is very clear that “We’re going to be standing up for Scotland’s interests from within the Conservative party,” but insists that they will not be “holding the government to ransom and refusing to vote on certain issues.”

The MP from Aberdeen said: “There’s no set agenda, we haven’t come in here thinking we need to change this, change that, but when there is an issue we will make sure that Scottish voices are heard, and Scottish Conservative voices are heard.”

Brexit pressure

Despite this assurance, Brexit is likely to be one area where the Scottish Tory MPs will use their influence

Ruth Davidson has previously indicated that the Scottish Conservatives come from a “liberal tradition” and plan to use their new power to make “changes to the Brexit offer.”

Bowie says that he would like to see the rights of EU nationals living and working in the UK decided on as soon as possible.

He explains: “The government pretty damn quickly needs to tell people out there what exactly settled status is, my constituents are asking me.”

A party within a party

The new Scottish Tory MPs meet regularly and sit together in the Commons but they shy away from being described as a separate bloc.

Thomas Kerr

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Thomas Kerr celebrates being elected as a councillor
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John Linton/PA Wire/PA Images

Bowie said: “We do meet up, we are quite obviously a group, but we are also part of a wider Conservative and Unionist party.”

Stephen Kerr agrees: “We sit near to each other in the Commons, opposite the SNP and we meet together as a group. This week we’re meeting twice, with cabinet ministers. Today we’re meeting the work and pensions secretary [David Gauke], tomorrow we’re meeting with the chancellor [Philip Hammond].”

“We do go together as a group, but we also work as individuals – I was invited to Downing Street for a meeting last week. We do work as a group but we’re consciously working as individuals as well.”

Defending the union

It is clear speaking to any Scottish Tory that the union has been the defining issue in the turnaround of the party’s fortunes, as they successfully campaigned against independence and have since argued against holding a second referendum in Scotland.

“The 2014 referendum polarised people, it split people down the middle and pushed a number of people who wouldn’t be natural Tories into our camp… but the people of Scotland are traditionally small ‘c’ conservative,” Liam Kerr tells me.

Bowie agrees. “I think it’s down to the Conservative Party in Scotland that we won that referendum 100%.”

“The overriding issue [in the general election] was the threat of a second independence referendum. My constituency voted overwhelmingly to stay in the union in 2014 and there was no desire to go back to a second referendum.”

Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon

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Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon.
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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Thomas Kerr, the recently elected councillor for Shettleston, Glasgow, one of the most deprived wards in Scotland tells me: “The union is a big thing up here, and people are sick to death of the SNP talking about independence.

“I said on Channel 4, after I got elected, thank you to Nicola Sturgeon, because I don’t think I would have been elected without their second referendum pledge.”

Here to stay

Kerr is proud that the Conservatives now have councillors in places like Shettleston.

“Glasgow had one Conservative councillor in 2007 and 2012, and it was a no go city for us. So to have 8 councillors now is huge, and it was the first time that my ward voted Tory in 100 years. “

While the Conservative party nationally may only be able to rely on a fragile majority of 13 in Westminster, the confidence of the new Scottish Tories is overwhelmingly clear.

“We’re here for the long haul,” Bowie insists.

“Five years. If you’d have asked me in week 2 I wouldn’t have given us five years, but as the weeks have gone by the government is looking stronger and stronger.”