Why the Scottish Conservatives are defying electoral expectations

The party’s unambiguous opposition to independence could help it remain the country’s second largest force.

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They’ve lost Ruth Davidson, their most vibrant electoral asset. They’re competing for votes as a pro-Brexit party in a nation that voted overwhelmingly for Remain. They haven’t fully shaken off the lingering, sour tang of the Thatcher years. Why, then, does it look like the Scottish Conservatives might pull off a relatively decent election result on 12 December?

This is not to say the party won’t lose seats. Polls indicate the SNP will have a happy night, adding somewhere between eight and 13 more seats to their current 35. The latter outcome would give them 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The Tories will undoubtedly take a hit — the question is how large a hit, or perhaps how small.

A poll by Ipsos MORI for STV suggests the Conservatives will fall from their current 13 Scottish seats to six. A survey for YouGov put the prospective loss at just two seats, with Stirling and East Renfrewshire reverting to the SNP. Either way, the Tories would remain the second largest Scottish presence at Westminster, with Labour set to hold just one or two of their current seven, and the Lib Dems staying at around four.

One reason for Conservative resilience in a nation where, until relatively recently. they were largely viewed with either scorn or contempt is the behaviour of the other parties, Tory strategists say. The decision by Nicola Sturgeon to centre her campaign on a demand for a second independence referendum to be held next year is alarming many unionist voters. “It’s independence rather than Brexit that’s dominating the Scottish picture,” says a Conservative source. “People see Nicola going on and on about another referendum and prioritising it over health and education. We’re finding that our message that we don’t want a second indyref, with the implication that we’d rather focus on those other things like schools and hospitals, plays well.”

Another reason for Tory buoyancy is linked to Labour’s inconsistent approach to the Union and another referendum. While the Scottish Labour Party had set its face against a rerun of 2014, Jeremy Corbyn has made it plain that in return for helping him into No 10 he will give the Nats a referendum if there’s a majority of pro-independence MSPs elected to Holyrood at the next devolved election in 2021. “In the 2017 election Labour were seen as being flaky on the constitution and the Union, bumbling almost,” says a Scottish Conservative campaigner. “This time it feels like they have a strategy and a plan. And that strategy makes it look like they’re running away from Scots who want to stay in the UK. Nicola couldn’t have made it clearer that there will be another referendum in the next 12 months — it’s right in people’s faces, it’s no flight of fancy. And Labour are saying ‘aye, fine’. That places us in quite a powerful position with Unionist voters.”

The Tories look most likely to hold on to the seats in the north east of Scotland that they prised from SNP hands in 2017. This, they say, is in part because under Sturgeon the Nationalists are seen as being more of a “central belt” party. 

These constituencies also contain more pro-Brexit voters than others in Scotland. “We’re hearing a lot of people say Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t focus on their interests,” the Conservative said. “A lot of people there did vote for Brexit, and care about fishing, and oil and gas. Today’s SNP seems very focused on west central Scotland in its mindset, which wasn’t the case during the Salmond era. So we present ourselves as being champions for the north east, and it seems to be quite effective.”

Despite this optimism, no one is counting their chickens. Majorities are narrow, and much could change in the next two weeks. But for now at least, the Ruth-less Scottish Conservatives look likely to stay in the game.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).