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View from Moray: how the Tories hope to take out an SNP star

A part-time football referee wants to replace the SNP's leader in Westminster.

Angus Robertson has a cheery manner on the doorstep. “All fine?” he says, whenever a front door opens and, on most occasions, he is received with a smile of recognition, even warmth, from one of his constituents. Robertson is out canvassing on an estate of mostly well-tended council and former council houses in Elgin, a former cathedral town that is the administrative and commercial centre of the vast rural ­constituency of Moray (pronounced “Murray”) in the north-east of Scotland.

“Aye, Angus, all fine.”

This is whisky country. The fast-flowing River Spey surges through the constituency, which stretches from the coastal towns of the north (including Lossiemouth, birthplace of Ramsay MacDonald) to the dense woodland and high peaks of the Cairngorms National Park in the south.

Earlier, on a bright and breezy morning, I’d driven west on the A96, which connects Aberdeen with Inverness, on a near-empty road, travelling through small urban settlements and verdant farmland. Spend time exploring the Highlands and the north-east and, especially in comparison to where I grew up in the south-east of England, you are struck by the boundless emptiness of this country that occupies a third of the landmass of Britain but has a population of just 5.3 million. One understands, too, why the SNP favours high levels of immigration and freedom of movement within the European Union: Scotland needs more people.

Back on the doorstep, Robertson unfurls an umbrella as it starts to rain and encourages me to shelter under it. His next move is to hand over an SNP flyer and a poster for the window. “You might recognise this handsome man,” he says, pointing at a photograph of himself. He says this repeatedly to both men and women, without embarrassment. One couldn’t say that the SNP’s deputy leader and, until the recent dissolution of parliament, its leader at Westminster is lacking in self-confidence.

Robertson knows what he knows and has the rehearsed patter of a well-travelled stand-up comedian. Like nearly all senior SNP politicians – Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Stewart Hosie – he is hyper-articulate and pugnacious. He has a serial winner’s cockiness.

His other stock phrase is “there’s a lot going on”, a veiled reference to the turbulence of Scottish politics, to the vote for Brexit as well as for the SNP’s preferred mode of attack, which is to be on the front foot, always, preparing for the next election or referendum. His constituents do accept that there is a lot going on, but none seems much interested in a second independence referendum, not that Robertson is intent on pushing the subject. His message is more that the SNP needs powerful representation at Westminster, where, as the leader of the third-largest party in the Commons, he can ask two questions at PMQs. He seems inordinately proud of his two questions.

We are out in Elgin with a dedicated team of canvassers, who include Angus’s wife, Jennifer, their two pet Labradoodles, Freyja and Marnie, and his election agent, Laura. Our ranks are bolstered by several veteran SNP activists – one of whom knows the New Statesman well and discusses with me the SNP breakthrough in 1974, when it won 11 seats at Westminster in the second of the two general elections that year.

The SNP is pouring resources into defending the seat, which Robertson won with a majority of over 9,000 in 2015, because Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives have re-emerged in the north-east as a serious threat. Last June, there was a strong vote for Brexit in Moray – 49.9 per cent, as opposed to 38 per cent for the whole of Scotland – and the Conservatives won the most first-preference votes in the council area covering this constituency in the local elections in April. “We didn’t get our vote out,” Robertson grumbles to me, determined not to make the same mistake on 8 June.

The Conservative candidate, Douglas Ross, is an MSP and part-time football referee or, more accurately, an assistant referee or linesman. Robertson likes to refer to his rival as a full-time referee and part-time politician: Ross missed a vote at Holyrood in November because he was running the line at a Sporting Lisbon-Real Madrid Champions League game. “Now, now,” one woman cautions Robertson after he gibes against Ross on the doorstep. Another man greets us at his front door wearing an Elgin City football shirt. He is “60-40 for the SNP” but is considering “giving Douglas a chance”.

When I meet Ross the next morning for a cup of tea after a morning campaigning in his home town of Forres (he attended the local state school) he says that in previous years he and Robertson “got on well”. But this time, “Angus has been different. He knows he is under threat.”

Ross will no longer be refereeing European matches. “It’s a hobby, not a job,” he says, with a touch of regret.

Like Davidson, Ross, dressed in smart jeans and a blazer when we meet, is no well-born tweedy Tory: as a farmworker’s son, he is of the land but does not own it.

So, how to account for the Tories’ improbable revival in Scotland? And can the party really win more than two or three seats back from the SNP, which holds 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats?

The SNP remains hegemonic in ­Scotland but, for the first time since the 2014 independence referendum, when support for the party surged after the collapse of Labour, its momentum seems to have been halted. Scrutiny of its domestic record, particularly on the devolved priorities of health, education and policing, is intensifying. And under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have positioned themselves as the ultimate defenders of the Union, whereas Labour has equivocated, not least when Jeremy Corbyn said that he was relaxed about a second independence referendum, which contradicted the official position of Scottish Labour.

“A sense of change came last year in the Scottish Parliament elections when we more than doubled our tally of MSPs and came out as the main opposition party,” Ross told me. “Ruth is a very strong leader and a real unionist force in the Scottish Parliament.” He thinks that Sturgeon miscalculated when she announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum. “Now her deputy leader cannot even put the word ‘independence’ on his campaign leaflet because he knows what the attitude is in places like Moray, where people are fed up with the SNP’s obsession with independence.”

Ross rates his odds of toppling Robertson at “evens”, and suggests that people get in the habit of voting for a party but are now preparing for change. He is a good man but I am not so sure. The north-east has long been SNP territory – Margaret Ewing captured Moray from the Tories in 1987, when many in the local farming community shifted to the Nationalists (the so-called Tartan Tories) and the party has held it ever since. Robertson, who was born in England and is a former journalist, has represented Moray since 2001, and incumbency offers many advantages.

“But what matters for us is that the revival is happening,” Adam Tomkins, a former academic and prominent Conservative MSP, told me. “I’m not saying we are going to win all our target seats but they are definitely in play.”

When I ask Jennifer Robertson if she is worried that her husband might lose, she says: “Do I look worried?” She does not. But her party gives every indication of being so: it will win well again at this election, not least because Labour is so weak, but the Tories believe we have reached Peak SNP. When you have reached the summit, there is only one way to go.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”