James Millar: Ruth Davidson shouldn’t get cocky, it’s Theresa May wot won it.
The PM can take much of the credit for the Tory comeback in Scotland.
“It’s Theresa May wot won it” is what nobody is saying since Thursday night. But, weirdly, it’s true.
Ruth Davidson may be crowing about her success in winning 13 MPs in Scotland – three times as many as have been elected at the previous five elections combined. She’s keen to remind May that the number of Scottish Tories outnumber the 10 delights of the DUP.
But truth is Ruth couldn’t have done it without the PM. In Tory party politics as with the constitution at large the interplay between London and Edinburgh is complicated. The key to the Conservatives comeback in Scotland was May’s decision to play hardball with Nicola Sturgeon.
Edinburgh may have been May’s first stop after moving into Number 10 last summer but the point of the trip was not to make nice. Time and again she’s stood up to Sturgeon, and that’s not something the First Minister has really been used to. Certainly not within her own party where dissent is against the rules and also not from Westminster since Gordon Brown hobbled the UK government approach to devolution via The Vow.
But when May swiftly responded to Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum by telling her that “Now is not the time” it set SNP pulses racing in anticipation of a Scots uprising against the arrogance of Downing Street. Instead it emboldened Scotland’s No voters.
The people who delivered the union back in 2014 have spent the years since keeping their heads down while the SNP surged. Suddenly they could vote last week with their heads held high. They didn’t hate Scotland, they weren’t even saying they were anti-independence, they were concurring only that now is not the time.
With Brexit chaos likely last month and all but inevitable after the election it’s not really controversial to say that an independence referendum would result in uncertainty squared. The messenger may have rankled but the message was hard to argue with.
Labour even benefited too. A vote for Scottish Labour was not a vote for the ‘Red Tories’ (Tory being shorthand for some sort of enemy of the Scottish nation) and against independence. It just meant you didn’t think there was any need for a second independence referendum right now, not that you were against the notion per se.
And of course with Jeremy Corbyn in charge Labour was seen very much as ‘red’, significantly more so than the more timid programme proposed by the SNP. If you back independence in the name of more social justice in Scotland it was OK to support Labour at this last election. But given the special circumstances at this vote Scotland’s seven Labour MPs ought not to get as comfy as some of their predecessors did. Unless you’re Ian Murray Labour MP in Scotland is no longer a job for life.
For the Tories, set up on a platform of ‘now is not the time’ by the PM, Ruth Davison ran with it for all she was worth and got her reward. Unseating Angus Robertson was at the high end of expectations, dumping Alex Salmond was dreamland.
But the result was no accident. May has kept Scotland in her thoughts throughout her premiership, charging cabinet ministers with thinking of ways to blunt the nationalists. Her own five words – ‘now is not the time’ – proved the most effective. It’s been pointed out since that without her baker’s dozen of Scots MPs May would have fallen even further short of a majority. She’s reason to be grateful for them. But they’ve reason to be grateful to her.
There’s plenty of talk of the Scottish Conservative MPs owing their loyalty to Ruth Davidson rather than Theresa May, but they’d be well to remember that it was the PM that put them in parliament just as much as it was Ruth Davidson.
Picture credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images