Theresa May has just recorded the worst opinion poll rating for public satisfaction with a British prime minister the month following a national election.
No fewer than 57% of voters think May should resign before the 2022 general election and 33% think she should resign now. And while a leadership contest is unlikely in the immediate future, views are already circulating about who might like the job. Among the names being discussed is Ruth Davidson, leader of the party in Scotland.
May’s spectacular decline has coincided with Davidson’s stellar rise. Davidson recently wrote an article in a newly-launched Conservative website, entitled Ctrl + Alt + Del. Conservatives must reboot capitalism. In it she cited the work of Adam Smith, the great Scottish political economist and “father of capitalism”, to show how he advocated intervention and regulation by government to ensure “basic fairness for the little guy”.
Since business failed to put its house in order after the 2008 financial crisis, Davidson’s thesis was that it’s now time for “governments to take the initiative”. They must reform corporate governance, break up monopolies, restrict tax avoidance and lower entry barriers to market competitors to address “the creeping cronyism that is making free market capitalism an unfree and anti-competitive capitalism”. In short, “nationally and internationally, capitalism needs a reboot”. Or more precisely, the governance of capitalism needs a reboot – and Davidson is proposing a bold, Conservative blueprint for the task.
Critically, Davidson argues that it’s “not enough for government to facilitate a discussion about where next for Britain, it has to actually lead”. In so stating, she was implicitly criticising May’s own recent relaunch speech in which she had called upon other political parties “to come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country”.
Could Davidson yet be the “where have you been all my life?” candidate to reboot the Conservative Party? After all, under her leadership in 2016 the Scottish Conservatives more than doubled their ranks of MSPs at Holyrood (from 15 in 2011 to 31).
Then, in 2017 the Scottish Conservative ranks at Westminster swelled from one to 13 MPs. This after nearly doubling the party’s share of the vote in Scotland (from 14.9% in 2015 to 28.6% in 2017). In the process, Davidson’s team unseated both former SNP first minister Alex Salmond and SNP leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson. Indeed, nine of the ten largest overturned majorities were in Scotland, and six of the top seven involved Scottish Conservative MPs replacing SNP incumbents.
On top of these successes, Davidson is an enticing proposition for Conservative modernisers, keen to end their enduring reputation as the “nasty party” (a phrase first coined by May herself at the 2002 Conservative Party Conference). As a young, openly gay woman, she would enable the Conservatives to demonstrate their connection with a plural, diverse Britain.
Flies in the ointment
However, there remain major obstacles to Davidson’s candidacy. Having only joined the Conservatives in 2009, her rise has been forged almost entirely in Scotland, in the forum of the Scottish parliament. Davidson’s value to the Conservative and Unionist Party has lain – and continues to reside – in her capacity to sustain a Conservative revival in Scotland, displacing Labour as the authentic voice of the union. Were Davidson to bail out of that role, it could deal a fatal blow to that Conservative momentum.
What’s more, Davidson does not have a seat at Westminster, nor any personal democratic mandate in England. Her political career has been forged exclusively in Scotland.
If Davidson was to be elected to Westminster via a Scottish constituency, her status as a political outsider would be cemented. Every time a piece of legislation affecting England passed through the House of Commons, Davidson’s opponents would be able to highlight her lack of a democratic mandate in England.
To lead the Conservative Party, Davidson needs a parliamentary seat (preferably a safe one) in England. Should death or personal tragedy create just such a vacancy, some Conservative local associations might rail against Davidson parachuting in from Scotland to stand in a by-election and constituency with which she had no previous personal connection.
But even then, doubt remains. After 40 years of ideological commitment to a smaller state, would Conservative Brexiteers, intent on wholesale repeal of laws and regulations rally to the cause of a prominent Remainer, who claims that, in pursuit of fairer markets both at home and abroad, “Boldness of the kind we don’t see from government is going to be necessary”? They too might just press Ctrl+Alt+Del.