Sunday National, 16th August 2020.
The pub door swings open. The regulars shift uncomfortably on their stools, as a grizzled, half-familiar figure pushes her way through the crowd. The camera pans to the landlady, whose face freezes. She shares a look of shocked recognition with the newcomer. Dramatic pause. “Hello mum. I’m back.” Duff duff, duff-duff-duff, duff-a-duff. And credits.
The character reprise is a lazy ploy of desperate soap opera show-runners everywhere. “I thought you’d taken up your dream job in Spain.” “I thought you were killed by a gas explosion during your wedding to your step-dad’s secret daughter.” “I thought you’d been indicted at The Hague for war crimes.” It doesn’t matter how your much-loved or much-maligned character was written out of the programme – shameless soap producers can always find an excuse to bring them back.
But character resurrections are usually a sign of a creative team in trouble. Stumped for new ideas, they resort to remakes, repeats and reruns of the old favourites to shore up their audiences. You can’t blame the actors. Unable to take their careers beyond Coronation Street or Albert Square, they turn up again like a bad penny, grateful to have a pay cheque to cash. But the shock return always feels like saddish cliché. By robbing classic characters of their endings – good and bad – writers often break the character arcs which made them memorable in the first place. Their stories are almost always diminished by the attempted revival. For once, life mirrors soap.
Watching Ruth Davidson – back at the Holyrood lectern again this week – felt like reintroducing a character from an earlier series, hoping the nostalgia will lift a flagging company. It didn’t. If her fans were expecting firecrackers and electricity, what they got was damp squibs and battery acid.
In her political appearances and press performances in the last fortnight, Davidson has seemed defensive, glum, easily narked. Some politicians are pass masters when it comes to feigning bounciness, even when their heart isn’t really in it. Davidson may be politically superficial, but she’s no actor. She’s clearly someone who thrives on confidence, and in its absence, the high spirits evaporate. It seems she’s misplaced her bounce.
Thus far, Davidson’s political myth has been premised on being in the right place at the right time – and Macavitying it when the going gets tough. Her political career was characterised by gains and losses. She managed to improve the Tory Party’s tally of seats in two elections – but managed to lose both elections by a landslide. For all of her campaigning belligerence and thin bonhomie, when it became clear her Edinburgh Central seat would become vulnerable – she beat a hasty retreat. When her party’s umbilical links to Boris Johnson looked likely to kill her reputation as a winner – she left hapless Jackson Carlaw to take one for the team. This time, it is different. What do you call the opposite of a victory lap?
It is now tolerably clear that Davidson was one of the real movers and shakers behind Jackson Carlaw’s defenestration. Other colleagues may have gripped him by the seat of his chinos and shunted him out of the window, but Davidson was active behind the scenes, organising the intervention which saw her longstanding deputy euthanised and an orderly succession to her preferred candidate imposed.
But the interesting question is: why? Why reinsert herself back into Scottish politics in this way? There are broadly two theories about what’s going on. The first reckons that Davidson now regrets taking early retirement, but hamstrung by the terms of her resignation, just can’t step back into the leadership office she vacated months ago. Her ambitions, in this version, are now orientated towards ministerial office south of the border once she has her baroness’s bonnet.
The second explanation, by contrast, sees the former leader as being reluctantly pulled back into the campaign fold in order to “pull a 2016.” This is the clear limit of Scottish Tory ambitions now. Gone is any talk of supplanting the current administration in Edinburgh. Their only priority is keeping the pro-independence vote under 50% and Nicola Sturgeon’s administration in a minority. In this version of the story, Davidson has been drafted in to do the British state some more service, having been identified as the only Tory politician capable of talking to any significant part of the Scottish electorate.
However you look at it, Davidson’s reappearance is a counsel of political despair for the Tories. But whichever explanation you prefer – the ambitious or reluctant Ruth theory – there is polling evidence to support these political calculations. Half the country hadn’t heard of Jackson Carlaw. The other half didn’t much like him. The same can be said of Douglas Ross. As YouGov confirmed this week, just 17% reckon Ross will make a good fist of being Scottish Tory leader, while 32% think he’ll make a pig’s ear of it. Perhaps the most significant finding is that 51% said they hadn’t the foggiest who Douglas Ross was, including almost a third of Tory voters.
Davidson, by contrast, remains comparatively popular among voters, with 43% of voters believing she’d make a good job of being interim leader, compared with 28% who believed she would perform badly. From the outside looking in, recent events are only explicable on the basis that Ruth Davidson has either decided or been persuaded that she is the only soul capable of stopping a pro-independence majority, and the pretended leadership of Douglas Ross is necessary to put her back in front of the Scottish electorate in the lead up to the 2021 election. Quite how they hope to raise Ross’s public profile and make Davidson their key spokesperson at the same time is not clear.
Those are the political computations, but there must be emotional and psychological ones too, which make me wonder how happy Davidson can be in her new position. In her public resignation letter in August last year, Davidson said that she “had to be honest” about how she was feeling. She can only be commended for that. But barely a year on, seeing her once again haunting the newsrooms and the Holyrood front bench, it is difficult to know what to make of this candour.
She worried that “having tried to be a good leader over the years, I have proved a poor daughter, sister, partner and friend. The party and my work has always come first, often at the expense of commitments to loved ones. The arrival of my son means I now make a different choice.” Fronting more election campaigns, she said, was a particularly ominous prospect. “Where the idea of getting on the road to fight two elections in 20 months would once have fired me up,” she said, “the threat of spending hundreds of hours away from my home and family now fills me with dread. That’s no way to lead.”
How you reconcile this feeling with running on a “joint ticket” at the upcoming Holyrood election, I couldn’t say. How you can have a “joint ticket” when the vice-presidential candidate isn’t putting her name on the ballot or running for a seat – I can’t fathom. How “getting our best striker back on the pitch” is compatible with Ruth Davidson living a life more ordinary over the coming months of the campaign, I can’t understand. How any of this makes sense when you end up fronting more leadership interviews than your leading man – well, your guess is as good as mine.
Even the politics of it look shaky. Less than a year ago, Davidson’s political differences with the Prime Minister were part of the toxic atmosphere which she felt made her position untenable. Now she’s a political co-presenter for the “Boris-backing” and “Brexit-positive” Douglas Ross, while Boris Johnson continues to relax his way intensely through office. The idea the political tensions which tore apart her leadership won’t pull at her sinews now she’s leader of the Tory group in Holyrood is delusional.
If I was more sympathetic to Ruth Davidson personally – if I was one of those friends she was worried she was neglecting less than twelve months ago – I’d be asking her what on earth she thinks she is doing with this gambit. What kind of self-knowledge does it express? If front line politics was causing the engulfing sense of anxiety she articulated, what sense can there be in plunging back into the thick of it scant months on? If the idea of fronting election campaigns was giving her such profound conniptions – why volunteer to compere this one? And given all these good reasons to hate the job you jacked in, why imagine you’re going to be any good at it?