Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson challenges Theresa May to fund NHS and scrap migration targets

The speech setting out her stall for the 2021 Scottish elections follows speculation about her potential as a future leader of the party in Westminster

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Tuesday 29 May 2018 18:35 BST
Davidson has taken a markedly different tone on immigration than that often taken in Whitehall
Davidson has taken a markedly different tone on immigration than that often taken in Whitehall (Getty)

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Leading Conservative Ruth Davidson has given a major speech calling for increased taxation to fund the NHS, the end of Theresa May’s immigration target and more help for young people to buy homes.

The leader of the Scottish Tories is the latest senior Conservative to push for more NHS money, as Ms May formulates a long-term plan for the cash-strapped health service.

Ms Davidson’s fresh call to scrap the target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands, flying in the face of Ms May’s position, and her push for Tory policy to help generation rent, will also renew speculation about her leadership ambitions.

But while her speech came after days in which fanciful talk of a “plot” involving Michael Gove circulated in Westminster, it was largely focussed on her agenda for the 2021 Scottish elections.

Recent days have seen senior Tory MPs and even health secretary Jeremy Hunt push for more NHS funding from the Treasury, saying the public would accept tax rises if they believed the money would be well spent.

Increasing the pressure, Ms Davidson said: “The UK government has acted to reduce the tax burden on working families. It has honoured its promise to do so, raising the income tax threshold has reduced taxes for millions of UK workers and has taken thousands out of taxation altogether.

“But the UK government has a choice to make. And, if that choice is between extra spending on the NHS or introducing further tax breaks beyond those already promised, I choose the NHS.”

Ruth Davidson arrives for cabinet meeting

Ms May has promised to produce a long-term NHS funding plan and suggested fresh cash could be earmarked for the service later this year, but is also under pressure to hit Tory deficit targets and protect voters from tax rises.

The intervention from Ms Davidson follows an analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies setting out how necessary NHS funding increases will require taxes to rise by up to 2.6 per cent of GDP or £2,000 per household.

I see neither the sense nor the need to stick to an immigration figure devised nearly a decade ago, which has never been met and does not fit the requirements of the country

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson

The Scottish leader also doubled down on her demand to scrap the “tens of thousands” migration target, initiated during Ms May’s time at the Home Office and still doggedly defended by the prime minister.

But in a markedly different tone on immigration than that often taken in Westminster, Ms Davidson said: “I see neither the sense nor the need to stick to an immigration figure devised nearly a decade ago, which has never been met and does not fit the requirements of the country.

“Setting an immigration target reduced to the tens of thousands is one thing when unemployment is running at 8 per cent. Refusing to review it when the country nears full employment and sectors are reporting skills shortages is quite another.

Ruth Davidson stands up for Theresa May in BBC interview

“Even if that target were to stay, I see no reason why overseas students should be included within the numbers counted.”

Ms Davidson, who recently announced she is expecting her first child with her Irish partner Jen Wilson, added: “We want EU citizens who live here to stay. I have an interest here, I speak as someone who is about to marry one – and to assure EU citizens and others of that wish, we need to do more.”

On housing, she backed a plan for a new Scottish housing and infrastructure agency to boost housing supply.

But she also appeared to pitch ideas to voters as far as London and framed them as a rallying call to centre-ground politicians “who do believe in markets and liberal values”.

She said: “While it’s all very well for me, or other centrist politicians to espouse the merits of a market economy, how does that work for a teenager growing up in a pit town with no pit, a steel town with no steel, or a factory town where the factory closed its doors more than a decade ago?

“How does that feel to a member of generation rent, moving to London for their best shot, living in Zone 6, paying half their stagnant salary on a commute, knowing all the while there is no chance of saving enough to ever own their front door?”

Ruth Davidson tells immigrants 'This is your home and you are welcome here'

Ms Davidson’s team said the speech is a response to the SNP’s Growth Commission report published last week, which aimed to show how the Scottish economy could thrive independently from the UK.

Instead of focussing on independence, the Scottish Tory leader is trying to concentrate on domestic policy ideas that Holyrood could implement to boost growth from within the UK.

One friend of Ms Davidson told The Independent: “None of what is in the speech is removed from a push to make Ruth first minister of Scotland in 2021.

“It’s all about getting Ruth into Bute House [the first minister’s official residence].”

Yet it follows media reports earlier this week that some Tories are plotting to replace Ms May as Prime Minister with Michael Gove in a caretaker capacity and eventually with Ms Davidson in the next three years.

The speculation, broadly dismissed, came after the pair appeared together at the launch of a new policy think tank called Onward.

The friend of Ms Davidson added: “Michael and Ruth are actually quite close politically. If you take Brexit out, they’re very close and they have a shared understanding, more than with many other senior people.

“But there’s nothing more than that. Don’t buy the idea that there’s some plot.”

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