Ruth Davidson’s best shot at becoming FM is to steer to the centre

Ruth Davidson MSP

Political strategy is vital in elections. Two reasons highlight why the Scottish Conservative leader should move to the centre to become first minister.

Scotland’s political landscape has been shifting left for several years now. The election of social democrat and nationalist firebrand Nicola Sturgeon as first minister has clearly moved the SNP to the left compared to Alex Salmond’s more moderate approach. The SNP’s anti-austerity plans and rhetoric in 2015 certainly paid off, but two years later they lost support.

The loss in support was partly down to a clear left-wing Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. The party gained six seats with its left-wing messages, another sign that Scotland is shifting to the left.

Perhaps in response to this leftward swing, the SNP unveiled a series of left-of-centre proposals earlier this year, including the possibility of income tax rises, shifting Scotland’s government firmly further to the left.

Nicola Sturgeon

Most recently, the election of Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour leader cements a return of Labour to a strong socialist position north of the border.

As for the Scottish Greens, they are probably the most left-wing party in Scotland while the Scottish Liberal Democrats are putting out a programme of progressive centrism, making proposals to marginally increase income tax to invest in education while rooting the party firmly in the centre-ground.

This brings us to the first reason Ruth Davidson should swing her party to the centre if she wants to become first minister. Scotland’s main political parties – bar the Conservatives -are all firmly in the left-to-left-of-centre.

Ruth Davidson MSP with GALVmed's Senior Director of R&D

Right now, the Conservatives have gone as far as they can probably go with Davidson’s charisma and rallying cries for unionism. The toxic association of the Tories is not fully erased in Scotland.

If Ruth Davidson’s party pitches its tent firmly in the centre-ground, they can woo over moderate voters reluctantly backing Labour and the SNP. The idea of SNP voters switching to the Tories is not unheard of – just look at the swings in numerous previously SNP-held seats that went to the Tories in June.

However, it is clear that the Scottish Conservatives will not win a majority at Holyrood in 2021 – that would be a near-impossible feat. In fact, it’s highly unlikely Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives could get close to a majority even if they won the most seats, and that the Scottish Tories would need help from other parties.

Their only realistic shot of forming a Conservative-led government would be through the Liberal Democrats or possibly with the help of abstaining Labour MSPs on the right of their party looking for a pro-union alternative.

This brings us to the second reason why it would make strategic sense for Davidson to shift her party to the centre.

In order to become first minister, Davidson would need to reach out to moderates across the aisle. It’s difficult to say if the Lib Dems would back Davidson, but it is possible to imagine them working with a moderated Scottish Conservative party. And after the last UK-wide coalition, the party would need to extract some big concessions from them for their support.

The party could become significant kingmakers.

The electoral maths suggests that a Ruth Davidson premiership is still very unlikely, but a shift to the centre could make it a slightly more realistic prospect.