SHE may have given up her leadership ambitions, for now, but Ruth Davidson is still a player. Her grudge match with Boris Johnson, which began over Brexit in 2016, continued at the Tory Conference this week. It's a kind of surrogate leadership contest between two acknowledged stars of modern Conservatism, neither of whom are likely to make it to Number 10.

Birmingham was turning into a bit of a Block Boris conference, as leading Tories, like Philip Hammond, lined up to diss his leadership prospects. Ruth Davidson mocked the former foreign secretary, for holding one of the “great offices of state” and then trying to claim he'd been “deceived” over the Chequers deal, which of course he initially supported.

Yesterday, sounding distinctly unchastened, Mr Johnson replied with a barn-storming “chuck Chequers” speech, which did everything short of calling Theresa May a traitor. It was the only really significant speech in a conference of duds and secured his claim to the Tory leadership, at least in the eyes of party members, who queued for him in a way unseen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

In a chaos of mixed metaphors, Mr Johnson said the PM’s Chequers plan would leave Britain “locked in the tractor beam of Brussels” and then “paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Roi like Caractacus”. Caractacus was a British chieftain who stood against the Roman invasion in AD 51 and lost. They laughed, they cried. But for all its rhetorical flair his speech was almost entirely content-free, and left unaddressed the obvious dangers of the no deal Brexit he now seems to favour.

Now, many think of Boris Johnson and Ruth Davidson as the yin and yang of the Tory party, but they are not as far apart as they would like us to think. They are both ex-journalists and ardent publicity seekers, with a penchant for risqué turns of phrase. At a Lobby lunch in 2016, after Mr Johnson backed off standing for the Tory leadership, she remarked: “Labour’s still fumbling with its flies while the Tories are enjoying a post-coital cigarette after withdrawing our massive Johnson”.

She has also described the President of the US, channelling Shakespeare, as “clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch”.

Boris Johnson too has a self-deprecating wit, and an unerring eye for the headline-grabbing phrase. His provocative remark about women in burqas looking like “letterboxes” dominated the news agenda for most of August, and not in a good way. He followed that by comparing the proposed Irish backstop as a “suicide vest wrapped round the British constitution”.

They may be in opposing camps now, but had it not for Brexit, both Ms Davidson and Mr Johnson would be regarded as ambitious and energetic politicians, very much on the liberal wing of the Tory Party. When he was London Mayor, Mr Johnson carefully burnished his multicultural and diversity credentials, celebrating the contribution immigrants made to the metropolis. He supported LGBT marches and promoted a green urban agenda based around cycling.

As an openly gay mother and feminist, Ms Davidson has also traded on her progressive image, rigorously suppressing any sexist or homophobic backsliding among her elderly Scottish Tory flock. She has argued for a more progressive immigration policy, has defended progressive taxation (at least recently), and has openly challenged Theresa May’s coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, over their opposition to same sex marriage.

Ms Davidson is following a path trod by Mr Johnson when he was London mayor. He was able to promote a distinctive political brand because, not being in cabinet, he didn’t have to religiously follow government policy. Davidson has used her leadership of the Scottish party in a similar way. She has been free to present herself as something of a conscientious objector over Brexit. Though her Remain convictions do not extend as far as endorsing a Peoples Vote.

Mr Johnson, of course, has elected to be the apostle of hard Brexit, but it has never been entirely clear that he’s a true, blood-and-soil English nationalist, like Jacob Rees Mogg. Everyone remembers how Mr Johnson penned two columns for the Telegraph in the week he decided to publicly back Brexit – one supporting leaving the EU and one arguing for staying in it. Like many charismatic politicians he is a singular opportunist, motivated by ambition rather than ideology.

The suspicion lingers that he is only really interested in promoting hard Brexit because it looks like a royal route to the leadership, given that most Tory members, if not MPs, are viscerally hostile to the European Union.

Ms Davidson also takes a free and easy approach to principle. She famously opposed the SNP’s freezing of the tax threshold as “vindictive policy punishing hard work and aspiration” only to endorse Theresa May's proposal to raise tax in a similar manner to fund the NHS. She has been opaque on the question of Holyrood's powers and prefers to repeat her mantra about the need to “move on” from the First Minister's “obsession with independence”. Her party's obsession with independence from Europe is, however, acceptable.

There has been much talk recently of the Tories winning the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections and installing Ms Davidson in Bute House. But she is most unlikely ever to become First Minister. Scottish voters may be intrigued by Ms Davidson, but there is no evidence that they’re in the mood to give her an overall majority in Holyrood. Tory is still a toxic brand, and no party will agree to form a governing coalition with Ms Davidson. The chaotic course of Brexit will see to that.

Mr Johnson's prospects are similarly limited. He who wields the knife rarely wears the crown. His ruthless rhetoric may kill off Theresa May, but it is not at all certain he will replace her. Michael Heseltine, a similarly charismatic figure, helped destroy Margaret Thatcher, but he never made it to the leadership, candidature for which is tightly sown up by the grandees of the Tory 1922 committee.

However, a bright future surely beckons for both Mr Johnson and Ms Davidson...on TV. She has already expressed a desire to appear on Strictly Come Dancing, and I'm sure he will be up for it too. What price a sequinned reconciliation on the show sometime in 2028?