By Elisabeth O'Leary
GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) - Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has delivered the party's biggest success in Scotland in a generation, leading a dogged charge against independence from the United Kingdom that has left the nationalist movement reeling.
Davidson, whose colorful humor and approachability has won her many fans, notched up the Conservatives' best result since 1983 north of the border. She may yet prove key to choosing a new leader to replace the party's nationwide leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, whose future is now in question.
With an easy, raucous laugh, she is a self-described "shovel-faced lesbian", a literature graduate and a former journalist who says the army taught her the art of leadership when she was a reservist.
Davidson, 38, has unapologetically stood up for the United Kingdom.
"I've never been afraid of debate and clash and think that's part of it. It's important that the Conservative voice isn't delegitimized," she told Reuters prior to the election.
In Britain's constantly shifting political landscape, she has reached Scottish voters by sticking to a message they not only understand but care about, as well as being more ordinary than the elite associated with her party 400 miles (644 km) down south in London.
"I'm proud to be Scottish and British and female and gay and Christian and Conservative and a Fifer and fond of chips, a fan of "Hamilton" the musical and to prefer dogs to cats," she told an audience at the Orwell Foundation last month.
Scottish politics is quite distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom. Voters and parties are split between those who support the continued three-century economic and political union of England and Scotland, and those who want to break away.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats adopted the same message as the Conservatives by concentrating on opposing secession, and all did well on Thursday night.
Davidson's forthright sense of humor also makes her different.
Asked by Reuters if she objected to talking about personal issues, she laughed: "Just don't rummage in my knicker drawer."
She has gained traction by offsetting the dry image of May, whose Scottish approval ratings plummeted 15 points in three weeks according to pollster YouGov. In a campaign in which she rarely strayed off script, May earned the nickname "Maybot".
Also on the back foot is Scottish National Party leader and leader of the devolved Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon, who just a year ago seemed unassailable.
Sturgeon's SNP won the election in Scotland, but its vote share fell after 10 years in power in Scotland's devolved parliament. Sturgeon has argued the United Kingdom's impending exit from the European Union is a seismic change which makes another vote on secession necessary because Scotland voted to keep its EU membership.
But Scots do not want another vote so soon, if at all, after rejecting independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, although support for it is little changed at around 45 percent.
Also helping Davidson has been the Labour Party's continued flip-flops on the union question.
Scotland, more sparsely populated than the rest of the United Kingdom and with an 8 percent share of its economy, has not voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives since the 1950s. On Thursday they won 13 of Scotland's 59 seats in Britain's 650 seat parliament, up from one.
Davidson credits her "outsider's eye" for being able to overhaul the Scottish party after winning the leadership in 2011, and an ability to call a spade a spade.
Critics say, however, that her high media profile, attractive in Westminster where politicians tend to show a more humdrum side, risks her not being taken seriously. She has been photographed on a tank with a British flag, or even atop a bull in the past, once describing herself as "a bit of a photo tart".
"She's done very well to get where she has, but I think there is a danger that we've gone beyond the strong image with the marshalling of the troops, to her becoming almost a parody of herself with the tank-riding and bull-riding and flag-waving," a senior SNP lawmaker said.
Collaborators hint at a ruthless streak.
"If Ruth disagrees with something, she says so," said a former Conservative party adviser. "In private she might chuck a can of diet coke across a room. But she's not afraid of taking on an upopular idea if she sees the value in it."
Davidson wants to return the party to a broad base, and her colleagues clearly relish having a fresh voice onside.
"The full-bodied character that people see on the screen is the character that people interact with in the party, and on the street when she comes to their doorstep," says Jackson Carlaw, a Conservative lawmaker in the Scottish parliament
"I think people in the party see she reaches people that the Conservatives haven’t got to in a long time."
(Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Angus MacSwan)