The Tories have a new heroine, and she is Scottish. What on earth is going on? Ruth Davidson’s triumph in knocking Labour into third place in the Holyrood election and in helping to ensure that the SNP lost its overall majority is an extraordinary achievement.
Be in no doubt – even if TV still seems to be running with the idea of a historic triumph for the SNP – this is a reverse for the Nationalists. Since running the Unionists close in the independence referendum, they have been on an ever upward trajectory, through their stunning surge in membership and their virtual wipeout of their opponents north of the border in the 2015 general election. Now, they have gone backwards.
That is despite in the election campaign the SNP plastering Saint Nicola’s face on countless posters and all over social media. She is, we keep on hearing, a megastar, more popular than Princess Diana crossed with Mother Theresa. The party’s Labour rivals were in meltdown. There is a Tory government (boo, hiss, in Scottish terms) in the UK. And yet despite all those advantages, Sturgeon did not win an overall majority.
The SNP won 63 seats (down 6), the Tories 31 (up 16), Labour 24 (down 13), the Greens 6 (up 4) and the Lib Dems 5 (no change).
This outcome has several consequences:
1) A second independence referendum is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, no matter what happens in the EU referendum. Sturgeon did not put it in her manifesto because she fears losing a second referendum and she does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament to force it even if she thought she could win. Her only hope would be be to patch something squalid together with the dreadful Patrick Harvie of the Greens, which would be a constitutional outrage and make the SNP a laughing stock.
2) The SNP is back in its box, by which I mean it now has to trade on day to day legislation with minority parties in the Scottish parliament. The embarrassing pre-election hype – all that Chairman Mao/Sturgeon meets Kazakhstan despot graphics – now looks silly and they have to contemplate the reality that politics is not a magical phenomenon that sweeps them along to ever more victories.
3) The Scottish Parliament now has many more powers, and with the constitutional option cut off for five years, might the SNP get on and actually do something serious on schools and health reform? Ruth Davidson will have to build a bigger policy operation to apply pressure and hold Sturgeon to account.
Davidson deserves all the praise heading in her direction today. After 30 years of Scottish Tory decline, and attempts at revival, during which the party became a byword for lost causes, she has done something remarkable thanks to her relentless energy, defence of the Union, dynamism, good humour and determination to give Scotland a proper opposition.