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27 September 2019

Why the future of the Scottish Conservatives might be brighter than you think

Some of its MPs think that rumours of the party's looming death might be overstated.

By Stephen Bush

“You know what, I think I’m going to be okay.” It’s become an article of faith at Westminster that most, perhaps all, of the 13 Conservative MPs elected in Scotland are doomed. It’s one that is reinforced by the gallows humour engaged in by many of their number.

But several Scottish Conservatives think that the party might do better than feared north of the border – and there are several reasons to think that they might be right.

The first – and this has a read-across to the talk of “Labour Leavers” and “Labour MPs in Leave seats” – is that, just because Scotland voted by a large majority to stay in the European Union, that doesn’t change that there were a million Leave voters in Scotland. That’s more than the number of people who voted SNP in the 2017 election, though not in their banner year of 2015.

So there is a large Leave vote to play for in Scotland, and all of the other Scotland-wide parties – the SNP of course, the Liberal Democrats and Labour – will campaign on an explicitly pro-Remain platform in the next election. The Scottish Conservatives hold one of the two (David Duguid’s Banff and Buchan seat) Scottish constituencies that voted to Leave in 2016, and in the other (Jamie Stone’s Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) their vote increased by 15 per cent, while the Liberal Democrats effectively stood still, winning the seat because the SNP vote went down.

Eight of the 13 Scottish Tories sit for seats that have more Leave voters than the country’s average, so if the next election in Scotland does become a Brexit election, it is perfectly possible that they can out-perform expectations and retain more seats than expected. There is a particularly big prize on offer because Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party both runs and is seen as, essentially, a party for England and south Wales, leaving the Scottish Conservatives as effectively the party of last resort for Scottish Leavers.

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The other source for Scottish Tory optimism is that the next Scottish election won’t be a Brexit election – that it will once again be about voting to prevent a second Scottish independence referendum, and tactical voting will help them hold onto the seats that they hold.

Their dream scenario is one in which they can benefit from both: they can run against the threat of another independence referendum if the SNP and Labour do a deal to form a government, and operate as the only viable home for Scottish Leave voters.

It’s possible that the much-expected – and suggested by the polls – wipeout of Scottish Conservatives happens. But it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the next election could again end in a surprising story of Scottish Conservative success.