Ruth Davidson made a catastrophic error of judgement yesterday - not just morally, but also from a public relations point of view. She questioned the independence and integrity of Professor Devi Sridhar, someone who has earned a deserved reputation with the public during the pandemic for fearlessly speaking truth to power when many other experts have been silent or overly cautious. Sridhar is not ideological - she'll praise any politician who she thinks is doing the right thing from a public health point of view, and castigate any politician who she thinks is doing the wrong thing.
What led to Davidson's gaffe was a misunderstanding - probably an honest one - on the part of the ITV journalist Peter MacMahon, who thought a tweet from Sridhar calling for schools to reopen properly in mid-August constituted an implied criticism of the Scottish Government's policy. In fact, Sridhar was calling for the virus to be suppressed so thoroughly that it would actually be safe to relax social distancing in August, which puts her on precisely the same page as Nicola Sturgeon. (Not a coincidence, because she almost certainly played a part in persuading Ms Sturgeon to adopt that policy in the first place.) She categorically wasn't saying that we should throw caution to the wind and abandon restrictions while the virus is still present in the community at dangerously high levels, which is essentially the position of the Scottish Government's most vocal critics.
I'd suggest the misunderstanding came about because of a difference in communication style between politicians and journalists on the one hand, and academics on the other. When stating what she thinks should be done, Sridhar has always been careful to honestly point out the other side of the story and the potential downsides. When lockdown was announced in March, something she was firmly in favour of, practically the first thing she did was to stress the harms of lockdown and the undesirability of continuing with it for too long - ironically echoing some of the language of the "let the virus rip" brigade she opposes. Any spin doctor would have been tearing their hair out at her 'naivety', because there was an obvious danger of undermining her own main objective. Politicians in her shoes would instead have had a laser-like focus on making the case for lockdown, and would have played down or ignored any counter-arguments. But it's Sridhar's honesty in painting a complete picture that has won her so much trust. That's what she was doing on schools - she was saying the virus needs to be suppressed and that children need to be back in school as soon as possible. Both of those statements are true, not just one of them, and there is no contradiction between the two. Sticking with stronger restrictions now is what will hopefully make a relaxation in August feasible and responsible.
Having posted a second tweet to clear up any misapprehensions, it was fascinating that her clarification was automatically assumed to be dishonest by Ruth Davidson - even though anyone who follows Sridhar knows it is absolutely consistent with what she has been saying for months. It seems that Davidson could not conceive of the possibility that anyone, even a leading academic, might have nuanced thought-processes they would actually want to share with others. Instead, the former Scottish Tory leader thought the only plausible explanation was that Sridhar had been leaned on by Ms Sturgeon and had cravenly 'walked back' her original statement. The even bigger misjudgement was to assume other people would find that a plausible explanation too. Almost nobody did.
If Davidson's hopelessly faulty instincts on this matter are the product of her personal experience of human nature over the last few years, I would suggest that she's unwittingly revealed rather a lot about the toxic culture of the Tory party. It's fear and bullying that make the world go round, but only if you happen to live in a world where nobody has any integrity, or principles they're willing to abide by.