On Friday morning, well before the final results of the local elections were in, I texted a senior Scottish Tory to ask if things were looking good. The response was prompt: ‘Looking amazing. If the swings in the north east are indicative then it’s not just West Aberdeenshire and Banff we can take from the SNP in the GE but Alex Salmond is also under direct threat in Gordon. Does Nicola want to put in the resource to try and save him?’
The possibility that the Conservatives will unseat the grand poobah of Scottish separatism on 8 June – and that Nicola Sturgeon would not be unhappy to see the back of her bumptious predecessor – is both delicious and probably stretching it a bit. But they are serious in intent. On Saturday, Ruth Davidson, the Tories’ pugnacious leader, swooped into the town of Inverurie in Salmond’s constituency, saying: ‘In this seat as in many others, it is a two-horse race between us and the Nationalists.’ And it’s also true that Salmond, with his big mouth and free opinions, is not in particularly good odour with the mistress of Bute House.
What an irony it would be if his political career were to end this way – losing to a Tory. The former SNP leader and first minister has spent decades aggressively dehumanising the Conservatives, painting them as a southern, anti-Scottish party with values that are antithetical to any right-thinking countryman. Nor might he be the only senior Nat to be so humiliated: Westminster leader Angus Robertson, who has at times been the only real opposition Theresa May has faced across the Commons chamber, is worried that he could be dumped by voters in Moray, his Highland seat. There, on Friday, the Tories gained 36.1 per cent of the vote, up from 31.1 per cent in 2015, while the SNP share plummeted from 49.5 per cent to 31.6 per cent. These kinds of areas, ‘tartan Tory’ territory before their capture by the SNP, look like they may be reverting to type at long last.
If any evidence was needed, Friday provided it: the Scottish Conservatives are back. Their recovery is not a blip, it is real. There is a major political realignment underway north of the Border – first, the SNP ousted Labour as the natural party of government and as the choice of many left-leaning voters, now the Tories have replaced Labour as the most credible opposition and the party for unionists. The figures are stark. The Conservatives picked up 164 new council seats on Friday – including, unthinkably, one in the deprived Glasgow ward of Shettleston – while Labour lost 133. The Tories are now the largest party in six of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, Labour in just three. Labour was for decades able to take its Scottish fiefdom for granted, but no longer: it has now wobbled on its constitutional position so often that no one seems entirely clear what it any longer stands for, or much what the point of it is, and the Corbyn effect is as murderous in the north as it is down south. Meanwhile, the party of Margaret Thatcher is running things again.
It’s important to note that the Nationalists comfortably remain Scotland’s most popular party – they ousted Labour as the largest party in totemic Glasgow, and also in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Fife and a handful of West Coast areas. But with each election success, Ruth Davidson is finding it easier to make her case, and an audience more willing to listen. The act of voting Conservative no longer carries the stigma it once did: validation is breeding validation. It all feels a long way from the wipeout of the 1997 general election.
The truth is that this new state of affairs suits both of the main combatants. The SNP is delighted to be facing off against a right-of-centre enemy, calculating that the Scottish Tories will never become too popular and will always struggle with their link to a right-wing government at Westminster. Meanwhile, its own scooping up of ex-Labour voters makes the prospect of securing independence in the next referendum that bit more likely. For the Conservatives, a return to the traditional ding-dong of left-right politics – something Scotland has been unhealthily denied since devolution – enables them to hold Sturgeon’s feet to the fire over her pretty poor policy record in areas like health and education. A referendum will see the effervescent Davidson as the main figurehead of the pro-union campaign, which is only likely to further increase her popularity among the ‘British’ part of the Scottish electorate.
It is, of course, dangerous to extrapolate too much from this local election to the national one coming our way on 8 June, not least because these elections use single transferable vote, not first past the post. I would still bet on the Tories winning only a handful of extra constituencies, and that their real impact will come in the shape of a much-increased overall share of the vote. It’s really about Davidson getting another successful notch on her belt as she prepares for the two big ones. The first of these is a second indyref, which, if Friday’s Tory surge is replicated in June’s general election might become that bit less likely, as this would strengthen Theresa May’s case for refusing permission. The second is the Holyrood election in 2021, when the Nats will have been in power for 14 years and Sturgeon a cabinet minister then first minister for the entire span. Davidson believes that the public will eventually tire of the SNP and that if her party has rehabilitated itself enough by that point, it could, just possibly, steal power.
Now, perhaps that sounds crazily unrealistic, but then what kind of madman would have bet on the Tories winning a council seat in Shettleston?