It is close to an iron rule of politics that leadership pacts and succession plans never succeed. Anthony Eden grew so frustrated waiting for Churchill to make way that his health suffered grievously. The briefly fashionable idea that Michael Heseltine would replace John Major, paving the way for Michael Portillo to take over, never came to pass. And as for the supposed “Granita deal” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, enough said. So I approach with caution this weekend’s reports that Michael Gove could succeed Theresa May as a “caretaker prime minister” next year and then yield place, in smooth transition, to Ruth Davidson before the next general election.
First of all, there are at least five other contenders for the top job who would not be sanguine about such a cosy arrangement. Second, politics rarely respects the lessons of game theory, in which wise participants seek “the action of greatest mutual benefit”. The default setting of the trade is Darwinian in its ruthlessness and chaotic in its patterns. Self-interest trumps collaboration; blueprints curl up in the flames of unpredictability.
What is true is that Davidson and Gove have a strong affinity that surprises those who do not appreciate the nuances of their respective political identities, and are puzzled that an arch-remainer and one of the principal architects of Brexit should be on speaking terms, let alone be friends.
In recent days, the environment secretary has been heard describing Davidson as one of the best reasons for the Tories to feel optimistic about the next general election. Davidson, for her part, knows that Gove is far from the tweedy reactionary of caricature. Last week they joined forces to launch the new thinktank Onward, whose explicit mission is to broaden the Tory party’s appeal – recognising, in Gove’s words, that Conservatives have to offer “a reforming, forward-looking agenda that responds to the concerns of the entire nation”. If that sounds like a statement of the obvious, take it from me: it is a proposition a great many traditional Tories still regard as faddish sloganeering.
Gove’s championship of Brexit has obscured the complexity of his politics. Yes, he is an unapologetic believer in Britain’s departure from the EU, a passionate unionist, and the first Briton to interview Donald Trump after his election as president. But he was also one of the first senior Tories to press the case for greater social liberalism, an early apostle of what became Cameronism, and has long been a strong proponent of a Toryism rooted in decency as well as competence.
As secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs since last June, he has tried to reconcile this apparent contradiction and demonstrate that it is a false dichotomy. Broadly, his argument is that Brexit will enable Britain to impose stricter rules governing animal welfare, higher standards in food quality control, and tougher action on plastics and other threats to the environment.
This counterintuitive notion of “progressive Brexit” may invite scorn from those who see Gove as the incarnation of wicked Toryism. But his performance at Defra has earned him widespread plaudits from green groups, NGOs and sustainability activists who expected to hate him. Who could possibly oppose his launch this weekend of a review of England’s national parks or his heavy hint that we need more such protected areas?
So the notion of a close understanding between Gove and Davidson makes perfect sense. The suggestion that Gove may take a second run at the leadership is no less plausible: he is a politician on manoeuvres, seeking to escape definition by Brexit alone. But I struggle with the notion of a caretaker leadership followed by a frictionless handover to Davidson. As Scots, she and Gove should know well the warning of their national poet: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley.” Were Gove to become leader – and prime minister – would he really want to yield power so quickly? Indeed, why should he?
Which leads us to Davidson. Blissfully pregnant and engaged to her partner, Jen Wilson, the Scottish Tory leader is entertainingly brusque with Conservative modernisers who make the pilgrimage to Holyrood to urge her to seek a Commons seat and run for the top job. She asks them to name a prime minister who has left No 10 sane, in good health and with his or her relationship intact.
More seriously, Davidson believes that she needs experience of governing as well as leadership if she is to present herself as a prospective prime minister. To which the answer is: become an MP, await your inevitable promotion as a minister, and get yourself ready. The “dual mandate” rule means that she could simultaneously hold seats in the Commons and the Scottish parliament (between 1998 and 2004, the late Ian Paisley was an MP, MEP and a member of the Northern Ireland legislative assembly).
One of her closest allies tells me that he sighs inwardly when he sees a central London 0207 number flashing up on his phone, suspecting that it is another metropolitan Tory imploring Davidson to come to Westminster and save the party. “Why would Ruth want to be the fag-end prime minister of a fading government?” asks another Scottish Tory. “She knows exactly what she wants the party to be. But the time has to be right.”
Davidson does indeed have a distinctive vision of modern Conservatism – open, pluralist, socially liberal, authentic, generous, relaxed – and it is one that scares the hell out of Labour. Just as Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Tory leader of whom Corbyn’s strategists rightly dream, so she is the contender of their nightmares. She is the only senior Conservative who could make the “absolute boy” of the left look like yesterday’s tomorrow man.
But where Davidson’s supporters are wrong is to believe that she should bide her time and wait for the stars to align – or even that she has the option to do so. In modern politics, you don’t get to choose your moment: the moment chooses you. The spotlight sweeps across the landscape, capturing you in its blaze – and then, if you do not seize the opportunity, it moves pitilessly on. Convenience doesn’t come into it. She is by some distance the best hope the Tories have, and the sooner they, and she, act upon this reality, the better.