Ruth Davidson has set herself on a collision course with Boris Johnson, after the leader of the Scottish Conservatives said she will not support a no-deal Brexit.
Ahead of a meeting between the two in Edinburgh later today, Davidson used her regular column in the Scottish Mail on Sunday to say: “I don’t think the Government should pursue a no-deal Brexit and, if it comes to it, I won’t support it.”
“I wrote to tell the former prime minister Theresa May that last year and I confirmed my position to her successor when I spoke to him last week” she added.
The Guardian says “Davidson’s public defiance – just as the Brexit planning minister Michael Gove confirms that the government is operating on the assumption that the UK will leave the EU without a deal on 31 October – will further test her already strained relationship with Johnson”.
The Scottish Tory leader was “livid” with the prime minister, The Sun says, after he ignored her pleas to keep longstanding Scottish secretary David Mundell in the cabinet.
She pointed out that none of the other 12 Scottish Conservative MPs had any frontbench experience, and that Mundell was best placed to challenge SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s renewed demands for a second independence referendum.
“This was the first big test of whether Boris would listen to her, and he’s effectively told her where to go” a source told The Sun. “They didn’t see eye to eye anyway, but where this leaves them is anyone’s guess.”
Davidson, herself touted as a future leader of the Conservatives, has previously been highly critical of Johnson, but The Independent says the latest move sees her “publicly challenging” the new prime minister over his main Brexit plans. Politics Home says it “exposes “deep splits between the new prime minister and Ms Davidson”.
While Johnson’s snub undermines Davidson personally, the brewing stand-off, which dominated Scotland’s Sunday front pages, matters politically.
The prime minister can little afford to lose the support of Scotland’s 12 Tory MPs if he is to have any hope of getting an improved Brexit withdrawal agreement through parliament. Meanwhile, his hardline Brexit strategy risks putting the hard-won caucus of Scottish Tory MPs at risk and with it his chance of winning a majority in the event of a snap general election.
British politics at present, however, is all about priorities, with a poll of Tory members revealing they care more about delivering Brexit that maintaining the union.
To that end, “Johnson’s priority now is to neutralise the threat posed to the Conservatives in England and Wales by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party” writes Euan Mccolm in The Times. “To do so, the new prime minister will surely drive his government further to the right. And as he does so, Davidson’s Scottish Conservative Party will be trampled into the dirt”.
The Daily Telegraph says Davidson has “dismissed speculation that her differences with Johnson are so great that she could consider a split from the UK Conservative Party” but The Herald on Sunday’s political editor Paul Hutcheon added his voice to the growing calls for Scottish Tories to severe ties completely as the only way to consolidate gains made in recent years and keep the Scottish Conservatives as the main opposition party to the SNP.
Much has been made of Davidson’s impressive work de-toxifying the Tory brand north of the border after decades in the political wilderness, but the prickly relationship between Johnson and Scotland may be harder to change.
Left Foot Forward says it “dates back to 2004 when in his position as editor at The Spectator he chose to publish a poem calling for the ‘extermination’ of the ‘verminous Scottish race’”.
However, “Johnson’s problem is rooted in much more than past mistakes” says the news site.
Early in the leadership campaign, Scottish Conservative critics told the Guardian that a Johnson premiership “would spell catastrophe for the party, boosting support for independence and bolstering Scottish nationalist arguments that Westminster represents only a wealthy, southern elite”.
The latest polling seems to back up this view, with one recent survey finding that 63% of Scots would vote for separation if Johnson pursues a no-deal Brexit.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that a second Scottish independence referendum may be the only option for the country unless Johnson “changes course” on Brexit.
In her letter congratulating him on his new position, Sturgeon warned that Scotland must have an “alternative option” to leaving the EU without an exit deal, which she said would cause “lasting harm”.
While the risk of Tory wipeout at the next election has increased since Johnson took over, former Scottish secretary David Mundell has warned that the 2021 Scottish Parliament election would be a “referendum on a referendum” and would determine whether Scotland faced another vote on separation.
“We all knew that the incoming prime minister would have a lot on his plate in the lead up to 31 October, but we can’t imagine he wants to have the break-up of the United Kingdom written into his legacy,” says Left Foot Forward.