After calorie counting, 5km runs and boxercise sessions, Ruth Davidson has lost more than 2st in lockdown — but look at what she has gained
After calorie counting, 5km runs and boxercise sessions, Ruth Davidson has lost more than 2st in lockdown — but look at what she has gained.
A peerage, a new role in Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, and a fondness for that mythical diet snack known as ‘healthy’ crisps.
‘Crisps,’ says the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, ‘are my big weakness. But I have gone from ones that are cooked in oil and made from potatoes to ones like Skips and Quavers. Diet crisps, I like to call them.’
Today she is wearing a dashing tartan trouser suit that last fitted ‘years and years ago’ and a pair of Hobbs boots to negotiate the rain-slicked Edinburgh cobbles.
What can I say? It is August, it is wet and miserable in the Scottish capital and Covid has cancelled the Festival.
We meet in the deserted and dusty splendour of the Scotsman Hotel bar in the city centre, which has been closed for months due to the pandemic.
Davidson settles into a velvet banquette; she is voluble and friendly, although quick to rise to a sort of controlled irascibility, as usual.
Like when I ask if she feels that Boris Johnson — hugely unpopular in Scotland — is a bigger threat to the union than SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
‘I think that’s patently preposterous on the grounds that Nicola wants to break up the UK and the Prime Minister does not. So I think even the premise of your question is nonsense,’ she says.
Okeydokey! The weight loss (‘I worked very hard on it’) has made Davidson look younger and somehow more innocent, like someone who should be wearing a ruff and singing carols in a choir.
This is ironic, given that she has also suddenly gained a reputation as a political plotter; a Lady Macbeth scooting around Scotland with a bucket of daggers on her hip, engineering the abrupt resignation of Jackson Carlaw, her lacklustre successor as leader of the Scottish Tories, and personally wrangling the emergence of 37-year-old Douglas Ross as the new head honcho. There is talk of a coup d’état.
‘There was no coup,’ she says. ‘Someone said it was engineered in London, which was news to all of us.’
Yet in the goldfish bowl of Scottish politics, someone else said someone saw her at Ross’s home, four days before Carlow’s resignation. As Ross lives more than 100 miles from where Davidson still sits as an MSP, whatever she was doing, she wasn’t popping in to borrow a bag of Skips.
What next? The new leader has asked Davidson to fill in for him at First Minister’s Questions when the Scottish Parliament returns next week and until the Holyrood election in May.
‘Daunted, excited,’ is how she describes her feelings about a semi-comeback.
After her shock resignation last year, this propulsion back to the frontline looks like something out of The Godfather; just when she tries to get out, they pull her back in.
Baroness Davidson of Selkirk? Baroness Crisp of Quavers? She says she has not had time to think about her title yet, and shakes her head when asked if her partner, Jen, will become Lady Jen. They are pictured above after Ruth Davidson gave birth to a baby boy, who is now aged two
‘Well, I can assure you no horses’ heads were involved,’ she says, keen to move on and talk up her protégé’s good points.
‘[Ross] is a real talent, he is strong, he is teak,’ she enthuses.
But he is not you, I say.
‘No, Jan, he is not. And he is not as funny as me, but he is better looking. Honestly, just you wait to see what he can do. He is a good lad; he’ll do really well. Once you see the upgrade we’re about to have, once you see Douglas in action, you will cease to wish to have me back at the helm.’
Lad? She also calls the married father-of-one ‘the boy’, which makes me have a quiet titter — albeit to myself, as I am a bit scared of Ruth.
She was the same age as Ross is now during her Tory leadership days, and it is not hard to imagine that if anyone had dared to call her a lassie or ‘the girl,’ they would have been swiftly rewarded with the imprint of a Hobbs boot on their left buttock.
That was back in the days when Davidson led the astonishing Conservative revival north of the border, winning 13 seats in the 2017 general election and helping to propel Theresa May to victory.
For the first time in modern history, Davidson made it acceptable to be a Tory in Scotland, achieving this by largely downplaying the party’s essential Tory-ness and emphasising instead its position as the only credible opposition to the SNP.
that year I spent a day following her on the campaign trail, and was impressed by her intelligence, popularity and social ease with voters of all stripes.
‘It is important to engage,’ she says. ‘The idea that you have to be po-faced about politics annoys me.’
Her inner showman makes her a formidable election campaigner, a hi-viz stateswoman, an embracer of photo opportunities no matter how cheesy. To this end, she has ridden a bull, played bagpipes and — my favourite — straddled the gun of a tank flying the Union flag as it trundled through a glen.
As the woman at the head of the thin blue line keeping the Union together she was and is an unlikely Conservative. A working-class former BBC journalist from Selkirk and an ex-Territorial Army signaller, she once described herself as a ‘shovel-faced lesbian’.
Then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. A year ago Davidson suddenly resigned from the leadership, ostensibly to spend more time with her partner, Jen, and their baby boy Finn, now nearly two.
This departure coincided with Brexit and the election of Boris Johnson as party leader — two things that made her feel politically uncomfortable.
‘It was personal and political,’ she says of her decision to step down.
It was widely assumed it was also because of a personal animus against Johnson, but she denies this. Sort of. ‘Considering the circumstances and the practicalities of it all, I am not sure another leader would have made things different for me,’ she demurs.
She warned the party about lurching to the right after Brexit, but approves of policies such as the furlough scheme and the offer made to British overseas passport-holders in Hong Kong.
‘I wouldn’t call that in any way Right-wing. In terms of where Boris is on a Left-Right spectrum, some of the choices and decisions that he’s made make him very hard to place.’
Although he is loved in the leafy shires down south, it is no secret that Boris is a problem north of the border, where even some Unionists have to put a peg on their nose to vote for his party.
Here, he is embodies the arrogant, upper-class English twit who reeks of Tory privilege. Look at him! He talks in Greek, he went to Eton, he acts all pure, dead entitled.
If he wore spats and ate buttered orphans on toast for breakfast, things could hardly be worse — but isn’t this rather unfair?
One could argue that David Cameron, who was received up here with grudging acceptance, was even grander and posher than Johnson. At least Boris is not pretending to be something he is not, but can Scottish voters learn to love him? After all, the survival of the Union may depend on it next year.
‘Look, I think the man has charm to burn and if anyone can turn it around he can,’ says Davidson.
What? You find him charming?
‘No,’ she says, after a long pause. ‘I find him good company. And I think Boris does have a certain charm — I’m just not sure it is the kind of charm that works on me. Look, I don’t really want to come across as mean-spirited on this.’
I suppose not. Particularly after he has just ennobled you. ‘Well. Actually, I think the [Cabinet Office’s Honours] committee does that.’
Really, what is the truth about Ruth? She has always presented herself as the kind of plain-speaking everywoman who might baulk at taking ermine, yet here she is, scampering off to the House of Lords at the invitation of a prime minister she seems somewhat lukewarm about.
It seems odd to resign the Scottish Tory leadership because she wanted to spend more time with her family, only then to take a seat at Westminster soon after.
She justifies this anomaly by explaining that the demands on her time will be much smaller — and that nothing short of reform of the House of Lords is her ultimate goal. ‘I have always believed it should be an elected chamber. As soon as someone brings forward a plan to turn it into a democratic chamber, I will be voting for it, I will be there with bells on. And if they move it to York, that will be so much closer to the East Coast train line.’
Is she being serious? ‘I don’t want to sound up myself . . .’ Go on.
‘But I don’t want to walk away completely from politics. I want to use the skills and knowledge I have learned. I still have a sense of wanting to do some form of public service.’
What form will that take? A permanent return to frontline politics on either side of the border seems unlikely and she will not be taking her seat in the Lords until after the Scottish Election in May 2021. Until then, her focus will be on campaigning to stop any Conservative slide, to halt any Sturgeon surge and to save us all from a potential IndyRef 2.
A year ago Davidson suddenly resigned from the leadership, ostensibly to spend more time with her partner, Jen, and their baby boy Finn, now nearly two
‘I am a proper Presbyterian masochist,’ she says. ‘I love elections, I loved being leader, I enjoyed being the person making the decisions. But after doing that for eight years, I will also enjoy not being the person making all the decisions.’
Of course, there has been much criticism of the crony-tastic honours list on which Davidson is named, which includes cricketer Sir Ian Botham, Brexiteer Claire Fox, newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev and even Jo Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother. What must Ruth have thought? I’m not going in there with that shower?
‘It is not a great look that Jo Johnson is the Prime Minister’s brother, but people have gone in with much less to recommend them,’ she says.
‘However, I think it would have been wiser if it had not happened under his brother’s premiership.’
Baroness Davidson of Selkirk? Baroness Crisp of Quavers? She says she has not had time to think about her title yet, and shakes her head when asked if her partner, Jen, will become Lady Jen.
‘I don’t think the House of Lords is quite up to speed with the LGBT community,’ she says. ‘And we are not married. Even if you are in an opposite sex relationship, you don’t get [the title] unless you’re married. I mean, Jen and I do plan to marry, it’s just that life keeps getting in the way. But I think with a shared mortgage, a shared dog, a shared child and hopefully at some point a little brother or sister for Finn, these are the ties that bind, right?’
The couple live in a two-bedroom, terrace house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, with Finn and Wilson the dog.
It was Ruth — the elder by three years — who gave birth to Finn after IVF treatment. Now it is Jen’s turn.
‘I am rapidly approaching 42 and I am done, thank you very much. It is someone else’s turn. I was enormous when I was pregnant; the size of a barge — thar she blows! Finn weighed 10lb when he was born.’
He is not a good sleeper and Ruth says she has ‘barely slept’ for two years, yet motherhood has been a fascinating journey.
‘It is amazing how their personalities develop so strongly when they are still so little. Jen and I have similar values about wanting to raise our children to be kind, courteous and polite, but at the moment all Finn wants to do is climb things and shove things down the toilet.’
Ruth suffered from depression when she was younger and has written before about the suicidal thoughts that plagued her.
‘It was like a black blanket that was over me, it made me withdraw into myself. When I was 18, I never thought I could have been a politician, could have had all this.’
She turned her life around mostly through willpower — but has motherhood changed her, too?
Davidson says it gave her a fresh perspective on life, made her realise that some of the things she always thought were terribly important actually had little significance. ‘That makes me sound a little bit like Andrea Leadsom during the leadership contest, so I don’t particularly want to go there,’ she says, ‘but it is not just being a mum that changes you. It is taking a year off the front line, taking a step back, turning 40.’
Her trajectory is also a reminder of the pressures political leaders are under — especially women. Douglas Ross has a small child, too, but so far he hasn’t had to give up anything.
‘Douglas is a pretty hands-on dad. We all have different challenges,’ she says mildly.
One can be glad for Davidson’s happiness but still feel sad that one of Scotland’s most effective politicians will soon be slipping back into the shadows.
Would the political landscape in Scotland have been very different had she stayed on the front line? In a world where Nicola Sturgeon can practically club seals in the middle of the Royal Mile and no one bats an eye, I think the answer is yes.
‘But how do you measure something that didn’t happen?’ says Ruth. ‘I don’t think you can — it is a fool’s errand.’