Ruth Davidson has ruled out trying to lead the UK Conservatives and becoming the UK’s first lesbian prime minister. Instead, she tells us, she has her sights set on becoming the next First Minister of Scotland. This is probably not unrelated to the certainty that should she pitch for the Conservative leadership, the media might start asking her some difficult questions. Questions which can’t be answered by her cradling her baby bump and reminiscing about her teenage years in Upper Largo. She’d need some other policy than Scotland doesn’t want another referendum. And besides, the good people of England already have Hello magazine for reading about vacuous celebrities. They have no need of them in the cabinet too.
Ruth is intensely ambitious. So it’s reasonable to ask why she’s ruled herself out for the biggest prize in British politics. The answer is of course that she knows that if she aimed for it, she’d fail. Scottish lesbians who were strongly remain inclined in the Brexit referendum have a limited appeal amongst the Conservative party membership who will select the next Tory leader. She also knows that she’d not enjoy such an easy ride in the press as she does as a purely Scottish politician. She knows that her trick would be exposed. So instead she insists that she wants to concentrate on becoming the next First Minister, and the adoring British press will still take her seriously, and will still avoid asking her difficult questions, because frankly, they don’t think Scotland is important enough to ask probing questions about.
Thankfully for those of us who prefer to indulge in fantasy in a more self-aware form, like Discworld or Game of Thrones, there is as much chance of Ruth Davidson becoming the next First Minister as there is of this blog being awarded the political commentary of the year award by a panel of Scotsman and Daily Mail leader writers. The media might be seduced by Ruth’s political sleight of hand, but the public are not. The chances of Ruth’s Scottish Conservatives securing a majority in Holyrood in 2021, or even becoming the largest party, are precisely zero.
The fact this is even being discussed is a symptom of the Ruthdavidosis of the media. What Ruth does is very simple. It’s a con trick which works very effectively on the media. It works especially well on an anti-independence media which is desperately seeking a UK Messiah who will magic the Scottish independence movement away with a wave of a sparkly red white and blue wand.
Most politicians avoid talking about their personal lives. They want to talk about policies and politics. They want, in other words, to talk about their day jobs. Of course they lie, they dissemble, they are mendacious. It is as difficult to get yer average politician to respond to a straight question with a straight answer as it is for Theresa May to avoid a robotic soundbite. But it’s even more difficult to get Theresa May to open up about her private life and her inner feelings. Her robotic “I’m being very clear” is always about policy. It’s usually a lie. It’s never clear. But it never gives us any sense that we’re peering into Theresa’s soul. Possibly because she doesn’t have one. Or a shadow for that matter. But that’s beside the point. This is the sort of performance that political journalists are used to dealing with. It’s what they expect.
Ruth turns that expectation on its head. She is all too willing to talk about her personal life. She’d rather talk about her personal life. She’s very comfortable talking about her personal life. She’s a whole lot less willing to talk about policies, mainly because she doesn’t have any, and she has no more of a grasp of political detail than Boris Johnson does. But she doesn’t need to have a grasp of political detail, or indeed even the broad picture, and that’s especially true in the incestuously small world of the overwhelmingly anti-independence media in Scotland which is both desperate for a Saviour of Britishness and which looks on Ruth as one of their own. They are happy to overlook Ruth’s policy poverty, and are happy to present her as she wants to be presented, as a personality, not as a politician.
So for example when she’s telling an interviewer about her episodes of self-harm when she was young, it is then very difficult for that interviewer to turn round and say, “OK, enough of that. What about Tory dark money? What about the bigots who infest the Scottish Conservatives?” without sounding crass and insensitive. Ruth avoids exposing her politics by exposing her personality with a disarming smile. That’s her schtick. That’s her con trick. She turns the expectations of a political interviewer upside down. They are seduced by her apparent charm and willingness to talk about subjects that politicians are not usually willing to talk about, so she comes across as human and open and defuses any threat from the interviewer.
And all this, the disarming charm in interviews when she talks about her personal life, the media appearances, the game shows, the collapsed sponges on Bake Off, the cosy sofa chats as she touts her new book, all of it helps to establish Ruth as a brand. All of it is a pretty and distracting curtain over the bare shelves of her policies and political hinterland.
Ruth is the person who is least likely to do what she’s always demanding Nicola Sturgeon does, to concentrate on the day job. Ruth’s kryptonite is not to allow her to talk about her personality, but to insist that she talks about her job. On the rare occasions when an interviewer does that, we see the resentful entitlement of someone hopelessly out of their depth. We see bad grace and the smile disappears.
Ruth will never become First Minister because she can’t coast her way into that position with fireside sofa chats about her teenage years. She knows that too. She’s not stupid. But First Minister isn’t the job that Ruth really wants either, because deep down in her fiercely ambitious soul she knows she has no chance of getting it. Politics for Ruth was only ever a means to an end. She certainly would never admit it, but the job that Ruth really wants is as the presenter of a prime time TV chat show on the BBC. She has a far better chance of achieving that ambition. After all, she’s spent a lot of time schmoozing with people in the media.
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