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23 October 2019

Why Scottish Tories worry about a winter election

Gloomy weather and a gloomier political outlook will make for a tougher fight. But there is nonetheless cautious optimism about a pre-Brexit poll.

By Patrick Maguire

Does anybody really want a December election? Not if you ask any one of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs, who have more reason to fear a deep winter campaign than most. North of the border the weather will be colder, and the political conditions far less hospitable to the Tories, too: there is a reason that the SNP are so keen to go to the country before the UK leaves the EU.

“I really would have doubts about a December election,” Stephen Kerr, the MP for Stirling, told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight last night. “We have tried the patience of people so much this year as a political group at Westminster, to put a general election into the Christmas month I think would be a push too far.”

Kerr’s colleagues agree, and have said much the same thing to Downing Street. “It’s a complete nightmare,” one complains of the practicalities. “It will be dark from 3pm. Are we really going to send young, female activists to canvass in hail on pitch black streets?” 

Then there are the politics: Scottish Tory MPs have always believed, despite Westminster groupthink dictating that they are doomed under Boris Johnson, that they stand a decent chance of replicating their 2017 performance if the next election comes after Brexit. In that scenario, the debate in Scotland would primarily be about independence – ground on which the 13 are more than happy to fight. 

There is nonetheless quiet optimism that a pre-Brexit campaign won’t end quite as badly as many commentators think: Tories believe that the SNP’s determination to hold a second independence referendum next year, the collapse of Scottish Labour, and the possibility they could unite the Leave vote behind the Conservative banner all add up to a better electoral hand than much of Westminster thinks.

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Going early will deny them the contest they prefer. But even those who share Kerr’s unease accept that it might now be impossible to avoid. “Let’s be clear,” says one Scottish Tory on the government payroll, “it’s hard not to see it happening now”. 

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Some on the backbenches, meanwhile, want the government to accept Labour’s offer on a new timetable for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and leave with a deal by mid-November. “Nobody will care if we leave a week late,” one grumbles. It does not look as if Downing Street – whose new road to a majority does not run through Scotland – shares that analysis.