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Ruth Davidson: a new type of Tory for a new Scotland?

Photo: ITV Border

Is Ruth Davidson a different kind of Tory?

Or is she, as her opponents say, just the same old same old - simply a modern incarnation of the cruel, callous Conservatives of old?

Ms Davidson is certainly different from previous Tory leaders in Scotland or indeed the UK.

The description of her as a 'kickboxing lesbian' has become tired and one part of it may no longer be accurate - the kickboxing bit.

However, as a gay woman she has certainly been a pioneer in her party which until relatively recently was, to put it generously, socially conservative with a small 'c'.

Ms Davidson is also different in other ways.

Her education at a state comprehensive school in one of the more deprived areas of Fife, for example.

Anyone who has observed her out campaigning can see she is comfortable with 'real people'.

And across Scotland there are also many in senior positions who will tell you that while they are NOT a Tory they find Ms Davidson sincere and engaging.

Credit: PA

On top of that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has developed a reputation for speaking her mind even when that means criticising some in her own party.

That was clear again today when I sat down with her for a New Year interview for tonight's Representing Border.

I asked her about Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying today that the Leave campaign's claim £350 million a week could come back from Brussels to be spent on the health service was an underestimate.

During an extremely robust debate ahead of the Brexit referendum Ms Davidson, appearing for the Remain camp, had accused her opponents, including Mr Johnson, of lying.

Is he lying again I asked?

Ms Davidson told me:

"He's a member of the Cabinet and he gets to see the Treasury's books. I'm not a member of government and I don't.

"But my understanding from as many economists and government watchers that were there at the time was that I was correct in what I said when I was on the stage at Wembley debating against him."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader

I pressed her. So he was lying then and he is lying now?

Her reply:

"Well, like I say, I can only take the analysis that I've seen, that I've seen from economists round the world. We believed in the arguments that we were putting forward for Remain."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader
Credit: PA

You can make up your own mind on what she means but it seems clear to me that she was not retracting her original charge and, to put it at its mildest, not impressed by his latest claims.

All of which helps to make the argument that this is a case of new Tories, new Scotland.

It is, however, worth looking at the counter argument.

That, yes, Ms Davidson may be prepared to pick a fight with Boris, she may be a working class Tory, she may even be popular with some... BUT... underneath that affable exterior the Conservative leopard has not changed her true blue spots.

To test that I asked her about some key issues.

Foodbanks, benefit 'reforms' (cuts to others) and tax.

Why, for example, did the highly respected Trussell Trust say that where Universal Credit has been rolled out there has been a big increase in demand for their foodbanks.

Ms Davidson replied:

"They're saying there is a correlation, not that there is a direct result. Those are different things. "What we are seeing with Universal Credit is that is is designed to make things easier for people moving out of unemployment and into a job..."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader
Credit: ITV Border

She went on to talk about the 'taper' where benefits are not withdrawn as quickly as they once were for those working more than 16 hours a week.

Does she still support the two child tax credit cap and what has been called the 'rape clause' - where woman have to declare they have given birth after "non-consensual conception" to get financial help?

Ms Davidson told me:

"I think if you have a cap which says you only get extra help from the state if you have two children and not beyond two children, that you have to make exemptions for people that have had a third child or a fourth or a fifth in the very worse circumstances.

"This has always been about giving people who have had children in the very worse circumstance, more. It's not about taking money away from them."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader
Credit: PA

That is not how her opponents see it.

They say that the root of the problem is cutting benefits beyond a second child and the 'rape clause' is an appalling, and avoidable, consequence of a policy which should be scrapped.

Would Ms Davidson like to cut taxes, income taxes?

Her reply:

As a centre-right politician I would always like to see a competitive tax regime in this country but I'll only do it when it is responsible and only do it if we can continue to fund our public services. But we have to get growth right and then we can look at cutting taxes."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader

In the context of my questions on benefits and tax credits, I put it to Ms Davidson her opponents claim she was not a new kind of modern compassionate Conservative, that she was the same old cruel Conservative?

It's the same old Tories and you're actually no different from them?

She told me:

"People can judge me, and they have. I think I've led our party in Scotland through six national elections. "What I'm saying is I want to get more people out of unemployment and into work in this country and I think - in fact I know - the majority of people in Scotland support me on that."

– Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative Leader

And whether she is right in saying that she 'knows' people support her on much of that agenda, further elections will test, though she did lead her party to second place at Holyrood and taking 12 more Westminster seats to make their tally now 13.

There was more​ in terms of questions - and answers of course - which you can see on tonight'​s​ Representing Border, but this gives a flavour of the exchanges.

Ms Davidson may be different in many ways but when it comes to tax, benefits and welfare reform she is pretty much in the mainstream of her party.

Whether you think this amounts to cruel or callous policies, or perfectly reasonable policies aimed at making work pay, encouraging self-reliance and growing the economy, well that's a matter for you.