The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, made fun of former party leadership hopefuls Andrea Leadsom and Boris Johnson during a lighthearted speech to journalists in Westminster.
Drawing on the turbulent politics of recent weeks, Davidson, who is hugely popular in her party, told reporters that she was glad to be still standing as everyone in politics was either “resigning, getting knifed, bottling it, withdrawing, failing, declaring, or falling on their sword”.
“I think the mad thing in all of the last few weeks is that the last man standing is Jeremy Corbyn,” she said, joking that Labour was now putting forward a “unity candidate” to take on their original “unity candidate”.
“Thats the difference between our two parties: Labour is still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying their post-coital cigarette. After withdrawing our massive Johnson,” she added, making the room full of reporters, politicians and advisers, burst out laughing.
“I didn’t say that, you can’t report that, and it would be gutter journalism of the highest order if you wrote down exactly what I’ve just said,” she added, in a joke aimed at Leadsom, who criticised a journalist after her controversial comments on motherhood were published.
That was not the only joke aimed at Leadsom, who pulled out of the Tory leadership contest after facing criticism over her suggestion that motherhood gave her a greater stake in society but also claims that she exaggerated elements of her CV, regarding her career in the City.
“Before politics not only was I a BBC journalist but I singlehandedly saved the British banking system during the Barings collapse,” said Davidson. “A little-known fact was that I was the original Misha the bear at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and that was the same year I won Eurovision. Which, speaking as a mother ... ” said Davidson, to more laughs.
She also joked about a conversation with the Downing Street communications chief, Craig Oliver, about being put up for the Wembley debate ahead of the EU referendum alongside Labour’s Angela Eagle.
Davidson said she responded: “That is great, Craig, but are you absolutely sure you want two short-haired, flat shoes, shovel-faced lesbians with northern accents?
“I think he’d never been spoken to like that before,” she said, laughing as she added that Oliver responded with Hugh Grant-like mumbling before getting Labour to suggest the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, instead.
She called Corbyn a “national joke” who was in “utter denial about his fate”.
She said whoever negotiated Brexit needed “a quick mind, an iron will, a certain charm”.
Davidson, who had earlier met with the incoming prime minister, Theresa May, in Downing Street, was asked if the boost in female political leaders was “women clearing up the men’s mess”. She replied: “I would like it if we didn’t have to bother asking these questions. Is a woman tough enough for it? Does she change the style of government?
“I don’t know what they expect she’s going to do, take out pan drops from her handbag. I don’t know why people think we act or argue differently, or set out agendas differently but I would really like it if either your gender or your sexuality didn’t have to be remarked upon at all.”
Davidson called on May to offer an assurance as soon as possible to EU citizens living in the UK that they can stay in the country.
“And that is nothing to do with the fact that I’ve just got engaged to an Irish EU migrant,” Davidson added.
In comments that put pressure on May after she said the status of EU migrants would be part of Brexit negotiations, Davidson said: “It is not enough to say to people who have come here and made their home here and their life here that we want your labour.
“We’ve got to be able to say that we want your brains, we want your culture, we want your passion, we want you in our country, making our country better and giving these people security.”
Davidson, who was a passionate campaigner for Britain to remain inside the EU, said that politicians had to respect a vote in which “more than 17 million” spoke out, calling it the “largest turnout in any electoral event in the history” of the country.
But she explicitly did not rule out the possibility of a second referendum in the future if circumstances changed. She added: “The honest answer is I don’t know what is going to happen. I think it would be highly unlikely.”
Davidson said her priority was securing “access to the single market” for Scottish businesses. “What does that cost? We don’t know yet. But that is what I want to see,” she said.
Davidson was warm about her party’s new leader and said that Scottish people were “really interested by Theresa May”. “Some see Theresa as an undemonstrative woman,” she said, “but I’ve sat in rooms like this and others and watched her speak about what Britishness means to her, and what making sure the union doesn’t break up means to her, and there is a real passion there.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has warned May that, while the new prime minister has told her own party that “Brexit means Brexit”, she must not forget that for the people of Scotland “remain means remain”.
Speaking before a series of meetings in London on Wednesday, including one with the chief minister of Gibraltar, which also voted heavily to remain in the EU, Sturgeon said: “While I do not agree with the decision on the EU reached by people in England and Wales, I do respect it. I hope the new PM will show the same respect for the decision reached by the Scottish people.”
Sturgeon said her message to Theresa May was that “the question of Scotland’s continued place in the European Union must be among the priority issues she addresses as prime minister.”
She said: “I expect early engagement with the incoming prime minister on that subject as we look to maintain Scotland’s EU status, in line with the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland.”
• This article was amended on 13 July 2016. In an earlier version, quotes from Nicola Sturgeon saying she expected early engagement with May about Scotland’s EU status were wrongly attributed to Ruth Davidson. It also quoted Davidson as saying she would like it if “either your agenda or your sexuality didn’t have to be remarked upon at all”. Her words were “your gender or your sexuality”.