The Tories are back in Scotland – they're just hiding the 'Tory'

Leader Ruth Davidson is a huge asset, and she and her party seem to be consciously projecting a fresh and upbeat image

Jon Stone
Wednesday 04 May 2016 20:03
comments
Ruth Davidson speaking at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh
Ruth Davidson speaking at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

The Tories have been a busted flush in Scotland for a generation, but if the polls are to be believed, they’re on course to win their best result since the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

The day before polls open, Ruth Davidson is giving a speech in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens to rally the troops. She hammers home her message: the Tories will be a strong opposition to the SNP, and won’t let them hold a second independence referendum – the politics of “division”, she says.

It’s a strange sight to see a party pitching to be the opposition, but the dominance of the SNP in Scottish politics is such that this is exactly what the Tories are doing. It seems to be working, with Ms Davidson’s party now in the previously unthinkable position of pushing Labour into third place in its traditional heartland.

Daniel King is 17 and one of those who is definitely voting Conservative for the first time on Thursday. He joined the party after the 2014 independence referendum, where he campaigned for Better Together. “Hard work” he says. “Especially at my school.”

“There’s actually quite a few young people I’ve met considering voting Conservatives, especially in the list option,” he says, waiting for Ms Davidson to take to the stage in the Gardens. He’s worried that the SNP will call another independence referendum and that Labour would be too weak to stop them. So what is it like supporting the Tories? Is there much hostility?

“Not at this election, I’ve actually been really surprised, the reception on the doors has been really positive. People have been really polite even if they don’t agree,” he says.

“I think in previous elections there was a bit of that – ‘you’re a Tory, get away’ – but I think Ruth Davidson’s done an amazing job in preventing that from taking place again.”

Other Tories do seem to genuinely believe a shift is underway. Outside the hall where Ms Davidson is speaking, a group of activists are discussing the reception they’ve been getting on the doorstep – they sound taken aback by how much less hostile it is than previous years.

“’97 was a strange campaign because no one was nasty to us because they knew we were going to lose,” a man in a suit recalls. But this time he believes something else is afoot.

Ms Davidson’s popularity seems key. According to a survey of Tory activists by the ConservativeHome website, she is more popular within her party than any UK Cabinet minister. Among the wider public her leadership ratings are strong and, crucially, leaving Labour’s Kezia Dugdale in the dust.

If parts of the Scottish public seems to have become more tolerant of the Tories, has the party really changed? Ms Davidson is a huge asset, and she and her party seem to be consciously projecting a fresh and upbeat image.

But the crowd of voters who have come of their own accord to watch the rally looks very different from the handpicked rows of activists stood in camera shot behind the leader’s podium.

Ruth Davidson's personal appeal is winning the Conservatives votes in Scotland

Most of those in the in-shot group are young – and none look over 60. By contrast, about half of the regular crowd seem to be pensioners. There are almost no youngsters in that group. Though it is, to be fair, the middle of a weekday, this is not like a Jeremy Corbyn rally.

Notably, even in the handpicked group there are about four times as many men as women – though a party official tries to rectify this during set-up by moving women to the front row.

“Pauline, if you can come forward between the two guys in front of you - swap places with Thomas…” she says.

“Getting some gender balance!” one of the activists casually quips. Well, the appearance of balance, at least.

If the Conservatives really are detoxifying in Scotland, they don’t seem entirely convinced themselves. Their party name has gone totally AWOL from all the branding at the Edinburgh rally – it is literally written on nothing (the SNP is mentioned on a few signs, however).

The dozens of party-provided placards and hoardings in the hall and media tent instead carry the brand “Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition” – next to the party’s logo, which is basically just a Saltire. It’s not so much ‘detoxifying the brand’ as completely peeling the label off.

I fully accept that there are people who are not ready to see me as the First Minister of Scotland – but they do want me to do a job for them, and that’s to be the opposition leader

&#13; <p>Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader</p>&#13;

A party that was truly on its way back would be less scared of its own shadow. The carefully managed image presented at the rally is also briefly shattered by disability rights protesters, who are angry that Ms Davidson skipped a hustings they had organised. That is more the sort of sight you would expect outside a Tory rally.

Ms Davidson’s explicit pitch to be opposition leader, rather than First Minister, seems calibrated to make voting Tory feel like less of a commitment.

“I’ve not asked the country to put me into Government in this campaign,” she tells reporters after her speech.

“I fully accept that there are people who are not ready to see me as the First Minister of Scotland – but they do want me to do a job for them, and that’s to be the opposition leader, and that’s a job I’ll take incredibly seriously.”

It would be easy to get carried away with talk of a Tory revival here. Coming second would probably have more to do with Labour’s failures than any significant increase in their own support. But that doesn’t seem to bother the Conservatives much at all.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments