Ruth Davidson: I'm Going Toe-To-Toe With "Cynical" Nicola Sturgeon
BuzzFeed News joined the Scottish Conservative leader on the campaign where she made her pitch to become opposition leader, distanced herself from David Cameron, and detailed exactly what it's like to ride a buffalo.
It's been a year since Ruth Davidson cemented her position as the UK politician with the best eye for an absurd photo opportunity. In last year's general election campaign, the Scottish Tory leader drove a tank, gazed lovingly into the eyes of a trout, and coerced me into eating an iced lollipop from her hands.
Hearts sank among the Scottish press, then, when Davidson told The Spectator in February she would be ditching the silly photos for a more serious Scottish election campaign designed to make people see her as the only leader who can stand up to Nicola Sturgeon. But, as I witness her charging around a farmyard atop of a massive buffalo named 007, I begin to suspect this strategy has been rethought.
"We started the campaign about five weeks ago doing a lot of stripped-back stuff, just talking and listening, set-piece speeches, but we got complaints that it was boring TV," explains the Scottish Tory leader. "We decided that, as long as we were able to link what we were doing to what we were talking about, there was no harm in adding a bit of fun back in there."
She says the trip to the buffalo farm in Fife wasn't just so she could ride 007 – an experience she describes as "like sitting on a very unstable sofa" – but also to make a serious point about supporting Scottish business and how Labour's proposed tax rises could cause entrepreneurs to leave Scotland for England. "And I've never ridden a buffalo before," she adds.
It's been clear for a long time that Davidson loves an election campaign, but, less than two weeks away from a vote that could see her pull off the previously unthinkable and beat Labour to second place, there's an extra confident spark about her compared to when we spoke almost exactly a year ago ahead of the general election.
For this election, the Scottish Conservative party has essentially turned into the Ruth Davidson party. The message "Ruth Davidson for Strong Opposition" will be alongside the party name on ballot papers, local candidate leaflets forgo the word "Conservative" for her name, and the manifesto, which was released last week, does not set out what they would do in government but rather how Davidson would hold first minister Sturgeon to account.
(Incidentally, Davidson almost turned down the opportunity to ride 007 the buffalo in case something went wrong and she was mauled to death two weeks before the election. "My name's on the local candidate leaflets – I have a duty of care," she says.)
"We knew at the start of this campaign that the SNP was going to make it a presidential style campaign about Nicola," says Davidson. "They'd registered lots of phrases with the Electoral Commission – things like 'Nicola for First Minister' or 'Re-Elect Nicola Sturgeon' or 'I'm With Nicola' – we knew that's what they were going to do, so we made a conscious decision that we would go toe-to-toe with her.
"That puts a lot of pressure on me to step up but I hope I've demonstrated during this campaign that I'm up for the challenge. What we've been talking about is the need in Scotland for a strong opposition. We don't think in nine years and six leaders the Labour has really laid a glove on the SNP, certainly in my time in the parliament."
Admittedly, the Conservatives have predicted some kind of renaissance in Scotland at almost every election since the poll tax riots. The difference this time is that the SNP has all but swallowed Scottish Labour, leaving a possible vacancy for Scotland's second party: The latest opinion poll showed Labour and the Tories to be neck and neck.
With the SNP certain to win the election, the most interesting battle is the one for second place between Davidson and Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Davidson cheerfully describes Dugdale as "bright", "articulate", and "talented" – before explaining why almost everything she's doing as Labour leader is a mistake, reserving her strongest criticism for what she perceives as Dugdale's flimsiness on the question of Scottish independence.
"The question mark I'd raise is whether we've seen [Dugdale] demonstrate whether she's strong enough on certain issues," says Davidson. "Saying she's happy for her MSPs to campaign for independence in future, I don't think that shows strength. In terms of clarity of vision, that she would say it's not inconceivable she would vote for independence, that's muddied the water."
When we met last year, Davidson said she expected the "echoes" of the 2014 independence referendum to fade, but, one year on, it's clear she has made standing up for the Union the cornerstone of her election campaign. In fact, its manifesto dedicated its entire first section to opposing another referendum.
If Davidson had her way, she says, she would be spending the campaign talking about what she could do with Scotland's new powers – but she says she feels compelled to stand up for the Union in the face of the renewed drive for independence which Sturgeon will begin this summer. Davidson, for her part, will start a counter-campaign.
"I perhaps gave the SNP too much credit that last time we spoke," she says. "I thought they would want in some way to bring the country back together; it's clear actually that they don't. The way in which they've approached this, saying things like they'll launch another campaign for independence this summer, has been wholly cynical.
"What I maybe didn't account for was the fact that it was so clearly in one party's interest to keep that division going, and that's the SNP. If they keep that fracture, that fault line across Scotland going and there's a kind of Ulsterfication of Scotland, which I desperately hope there isn't in the future, then they lock in 45% of the vote."
Davidson is adamant there will not be another referendum in the next five years and adds that David Cameron is within his rights to refuse any request from the Scottish government for another vote – "areas of constitution are clearly reserved," she says. She adds that the SNP leader did not explicitly call for one in the manifesto she released earlier this week, so lacks a mandate from the Scottish people to hold another referendum anyway.
"What they've said if at some future date an IPSOS-MORI phone poll of 1,004 people says we might win one, then the first minister unilaterally gets to decide whether we do or not," she says. "I'm sorry, that is not how constitutional politics works – they're at it. They're totally, totally at it. There's your quote."
It's clear Davidson is incredibly passionate about the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, what is less obvious is her interest in next month's referendum on EU membership. The issue that is currently dividing her English colleagues into two camps has barely been a topic of discussion among the party she leads, with only one of her noteworthy colleagues backing a Leave vote. Why is her party not agonising over it?
"It doesn't feel as big an issue for us as the referendum we just fought," she says. "I don't think keeping the UK together is comparable in terms of the decision people are being asked to make, in importance, as whether the UK stays part of or comes out a much looser union of nation states.
"But also, I've been upfront with everyone in our party, that whatever they believe in this they have a home in us. I've put my views out there but I've made sure I made it clear that was my personal view and I'm not imposing that view on the party. We've been pretty grown-up about it."
Grown up, as opposed to her bickering colleagues in Westminster? "No, I didn't say that, don't put words in my mouth," she hits back. "We're devolved as a campaigning entity in Scotland, I'm in charge of who our candidates our, our policy, our direction, our funding, that's the way we've chosen to go."
Davidson doesn't like being asked about her Westminster colleagues, always quickly steering the conversation back to what she's doing in Scotland.
She's not expecting Cameron to join her on the election campaign trail before May 5 – "his name's not on the ballot paper," she says – and points out the "different route" she's taking from him on welfare policy when asked about her candidate in Glasgow who said the UK government "humiliates" disabled people.
The SNP and Labour are eager to paint Davidson as indistinguishable from Cameron and Osborne, sensing that is where she is least comfortable. In particular, the Scottish Tory leader has come under attack from both parties over her plan to introduce a "graduate contribution" of £6,000 to be paid by Scottish students at Scottish universities – who are currently entitled to free tuition – after they're earning a certain amount.
Last week a crowd of students hissed leading Tory candidate Adam Tomkins as he explained the policy, saying education was "a privilege, not a right". Does Davidson understand why it's unpopular, particularly among current students?
"I understand why people who are getting the degree for free right now don't like this idea, but there's a whole lot of people who don't have the ability to walk through the doors because of the current SNP policy," she says, adding that Sturgeon has cut £40 million in student bursaries and 152,000 college places, and has capped the number of Scottish students who can go to Scottish universities.
"That's the price of 'free education'," she says.
Davidson is now entering the final full week of an election campaign, and could well pull off one of the greatest upsets in Scottish politics should she become the official leader of the opposition on May 6. If, on that day, she is instead looking ahead to five more years of being the third most important leader in Holyrood, will she consider that to be a failure?
"Over a year ago now... I said the aim for this was for the best ever result we've ever had," she says. "That's more votes and more MSPs than we've ever had before. We're on course to achieve that, if we don't I'll be desperately disappointed. I also want to be the official opposition because I think there's a job I can do that hasn't been done by the Labour party.
"Having a weakened Labour party back in to the Scottish parliament, with all the same faces but fewer of them, won't hold the SNP to account in the same way a new fresh team with different ideas, with energy, could do. But the measure is can we have our best result, and that's what success looks like for me."
As for her next potentially life-threatening stunt on the campaign trail, she has no definite plans, but reflects: "I never thought when I was growing up I'd ever have a job which would require me to ride a buffalo because journalists told me to."