30 March 2016

Ruth Davidson's damaging rookie error

I was out last night, tripping the light fantastic, and so conspired to miss STV's leaders' debate and David Coburn's splendid periscope broadcast in parallel. Having read this morning's notices, and caught up on last night's highlights, you can't help but be struck by the clatter Nicola Sturgeon gave Ruth Davidson. As is often the case, it all began with an innocuous question.

The combative STV format gave political opponents the opportunity to cross examine one other in detail. While the First Minister is put on the spot every week, the Scottish Tory leader generally benefits from asking the question. Her own agenda has been generously sheltered from equivalent scrutiny. I make no complaint about that. Decisions taken by Nicola Sturgeon's government impact on people's lives. Ruth Davidson's policies, with the best will in the world, are tomorrow's chip wrappers, influential only in the sense that they propel her ailing party forward or are smuggled into the governing agenda of other parties.

Harsh, perhaps. But there it is. But an election campaign suspends this obvious point. Instead, we have to pretend Ruth Davidson might, somehow, seize Bute House and find herself in a position to enact her ideas. And trapped in this parallel reality, we saw a different, faltering version of the Scottish Tory leader, contrasting rather sharply with the bluff, affable version which has dominated the headlines hitherto.

So what did Nicola ask? The Nats have already excerpted and punted the key exchange with Davidson.

"You've said you would tax graduates of university education and restore prescription charges. So will you tell us tonight exactly how much your graduate tax would be, and how much people will have to pay for their medicines, if you get your way?"

This is an evil question on a couple of fronts. Firstly, contrast the simplicity of the SNP's position with the complexity of her opponent's. Sturgeon has asked about two separate schemes here, which have their universality in common. Every student, fees covered. Every prescription, paid for. If we dig into these policies, there are more challenging trade offs and implications. But if we remain on a superficial level? It is an easy sell.

Inevitably, Ruth Davidson's position on these questions will be more complicated, and accordingly, harder to explain. She will want to argue that the absence of tuition fees and prescriptions doesn't represent the best and fairest distribution of limited resources, which should be targeted and means tested, towards those with least, while those with greater disposable income make their contribution. She will want to argue this is fairer.

But even in summary, this is a complex message. And even worse, even if she manages to impart this message clearly, she hasn't begun to explain the detail of her own scheme, and the precise rules about the winners and losers it will create. These challenges would apply if Sturgeon had only asked about tuition fees or prescription charges. But by pressing Davidson for a detailed answer on both, with no time to develop her case and explain her thinking, Sturgeon laid down two bear traps for the Tory leader.

And entertainingly, Davidson blundered into both of them.

"Well, first of all it is not a graduate tax. it is a contribution after you've graduated --""How much?"" -- once you're earning money. We expect it to be  - erm - within the region of [swithering gesture] just over - eh - just over £1,500 per year. So that's a lot less than England."

And on prescriptions, again harried for precise numbers, a now rattled and embattled Davidson said:

"We will raise it over the course of the parliament, up to about £8."

"About", "in the region of" and "just over" are not phrases which instil much confidence. But let's not overemphasise that. Davidson was knocked off beam and struggled to think on her feet, as many folk would in parallel circumstances. That's what these debates are for: a chance to shine, and an opportunity to stumble.

But what struck me particularly about this exchange is how politically maladroit Davidson's response to Sturgeon's specific query really was. She offered a sketchy defence of both policies, and left the hard-sell bottom lines ringing in electors' ears. Inevitably, these bottom lines were picked up in the media this morning, without much explanation of why Davidson is pursuing these goals. This is not, I fancy, how she envisaged selling her tricky education and health policies in this election.

Sturgeon's question tempted Davidson into anticipating her manifesto in a way that was both fuzzy on detail, and nevertheless, simple and clear enough to be damaging.  She might have responded to Sturgeon's question evasively, and answered the question in terms of general principles while skirting the detail. In the moment, this would have had some costs. Imagine Davidson had said the following instead:

"We'll be publishing our detailed plans shortly in our manifesto. I won't anticipate that detail here tonight. But what I can tell you, Nicola, is that any Scottish Government I lead will be focused on the interests of the worst off in society. I'll prioritise investing in bright young Scots with potential, not in subsidising rich Scots who can already afford it to send their kids to university. I'll protect the funds available for cancer victims and those suffering from long term conditions -- not subsidising the viagra of merchant bankers from Edinburgh or featherbedded NHS managers from Glasgow. Why won't you?" 

Sturgeon's response to this would have been predictable -- "why won't you be straight with us now? Give me numbers!" Davidson might have suffered a boo or two for such evasions -- but she could have turned the the rhetorical tables on the First Minister and prevented her policies on these two highly visible topics from being presented, from the outset, in a muddled and easily caricatured way. Once her plans had been produced, in a day or two, everyone would have forgotten her early diffidence and evasion in the debate.

But Davidson didn't make that calculation. Instead she blundered in with rough and implausible sounding numbers, and neglected the more important bit -- foregrounding and explaining why she believes these policies are better for Scotland. Feart of a few noises off in the debating hall, Davidson has allowed the political initiative to slip from her, handing her opponents a loudhailer with which to characterise - and crucify - her education and health policies.

Davidson had her moments elsewhere in the debate. Asking Kezia Dugdale if she’d stand “shoulder to shoulder” with her again in the event of a second referendum was extremely funny. But overall? This was a sucker punch from the First Minister, and from the young and untested Tory leader, a damaging rookie error.


  1. And lo, a good skelp was administered and Nicola sayeth unto Rooth, "get ye hence and indulge in some personal reverberation"

  2. Personal reverberation? Cranial evaporation, surely...?

  3. I don't go for this simplistic line on "those who can afford to pay for this and that".
    As those who can afford are already paying the taxes that pays for this and that for everybody why should they be the only ones that don't get the benefit. Infantile nonsense. Universal means universal and is a bedrock of any equitable provision of social services.
    Why would anybody pay their taxes if they are then made to pay again or the services their taxes are providing

    1. hear hear. never mind the fact that means testnig costs more than it returns

  4. Lets just settle for redistribution of wealth, in a fair, equitable manner. Why not, for example, require that the £150,000 p.a. civil servants and council executive leaders must re-qpply for their jobs, on the open market, salaries reduced to say £60,000, as paid to MSPs? I'd wager there would be a clamour for the positions.
    Human (humane?) Resource departments oft times use that with the regular staff, why not the elite?

    1. I couldn't agree more! It's always been one of my bugbears that pay rises were given (taken) to those at the top in the public sector to "bring them in line with the private sector". They are not in the private sector! There would certainly be a clamour for those positions at a fraction of the salary, often by people more capable too!
      I don't agree that the high salary means they attract the brightest and the best as more often than not it's the same people who had been happily doing the job for a lot less.
      Gravy train springs to mind!

    2. I couldn't agree more! It's always been one of my bugbears that pay rises were given (taken) to those at the top in the public sector to "bring them in line with the private sector". They are not in the private sector! There would certainly be a clamour for those positions at a fraction of the salary, often by people more capable too!
      I don't agree that the high salary means they attract the brightest and the best as more often than not it's the same people who had been happily doing the job for a lot less.
      Gravy train springs to mind!

  5. I didn't watch the debate - now think I should have - but the aspect of the prescription question which interests me is the question of exemptions. If Tory proposals would see the retention of existing exemptions, notably that for the over - 65's, and if it is indeed the case that Tory support among this age group is stronger than average, then Ruth is advocating a policy which would not affect a significant group of her supporters. Sir Humphrey would surely have approved !

  6. GR on GMS picked up on this today,asking Ruth the cost of admin,such a policy


    2 hours,7 mins

  7. I dunno, you seem to be criticising her for giving a (more or less) straight answer to the question, rather than the waffle we've all heard a billion times about how rich sick people should pay more than rich healthy people.

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