Election Notebook

Is Scottish Conservatism heading south? 

Graham Stewart on why a lot of ‘Cons Holds’ are actually too close to call

Thursday’s IpsosMORI Scottish opinion poll, (SNP 44 per cent; Conservatives 26 per cent; Labour 16 per cent; Lib Dems 11 per cent) points towards two results.  

First, it indicates that the SNP is heading for a landslide victory. Between 45 and 50 Scottish Nationalist MPs will be in a position to prop-up a minority Labour government in return for Jeremy Corbyn scrapping Trident and conceding – at some stage during the parliament – a second referendum on independence. The Labour Party is seemingly on the verge of near wipe-out in Scotland. Yet, their Scottish Nationalist avengers may rescue Labour’s prospects for power in Westminster.

The second outcome concerns the Scottish Conservative Party. Its ability to win 13 constituencies in 2017 was the difference between Theresa May clinging to office and falling tantalisingly short.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the opinion polls and expert analysis aligned upon the verdict that his Party would revert to something close to its pre-2017 ignominy with fewer MPs in Scotland than the nation had pandas. Fear of Brexit, antipathy to Old Etonians, and the sudden resignation of Ruth Davidson as Scottish Conservative leader all boded ill. A September poll by YouGov suggested they might end up with only 3 escapees tunnelling their way back to Westminster.

Yet, the campaign wind has blown some favourable straws. It transpires that Scots hate Johnson slightly less than they detest Corbyn. The Prime Minister’s deal with Brussels removes – at least for now – the threat of no deal and implies he might be some sort of competent leader after all. The loss of Davidson has been compensated for by Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that her price from Labour is another referendum – reviving the Tories’ strongest rallying call as the Union’s last, best, hope. 

This optimism was reinforced by Wednesday’s YouGov MRP poll which suggested the Conservatives would hold-on in 11 constituencies, losing only Stirling and East Renfrewshire. Wild talk even raised the possibility of their making a gain or two.

This heady excitement lasted a day. If yesterday’s IpsosMori poll is correct then Scottish Tory fortunes are back down to six MPs.  

Yet, the reality is the YouGov and IpsosMori polls are not so far apart. What they demonstrate is that whether the Scottish Conservatives win only five seats or as many as fifteen is down to a tiny margin in a few constituencies.

The more favourable picture presented by the YouGov MRP survey might flatter to deceive. Its constituency-by-constituency findings as published in The Times awards them victory on a margin of less than 2% in Angus, and also by less than 2% in Gordon and in Ochil and South Perthshire. Their lead in Aberdeen South is fractionally over 2%. All of these constituencies are too close to call.

The questionable factor is what effect tactical voting will have

The three Conservative-held seats in the Borders now look relatively safe (fears that Johnson’s choice as Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, would lose in Dumfries and Galloway appear to be abating). They should also cling-on in Ayr. Before the Conservative machine gets too obsessed with breaching the Red Wall in Labour Leave seats in the West Midlands and North of England with swings required of more than 5% and often considerably more, they need first to defend where they are in danger of losing by a whisker. This means pouring resources as quickly as possible into Perthshire and the North-East of Scotland.

The questionable factor is what effect tactical voting will have – especially as voters in these constituencies digest with the help of these opinion polls how a vote for the parties destined to come third or fourth will be wasted. There is currently a lot of social media traffic prompted by Nationalists about how best other voters can unite against the Tories in these and the other marginal constituencies.

The fights in all these marginals are straight SNP/Conservative tussles. Labour has become an also-ran in Grampian region. As if it hadn’t damaged its brand enough, the Party has done itself further harm by pledging to impose an £11 billion tax on North Sea oil – as part of a wider ‘climate emergency’ package against the fossil fuel industry. So, that’s 10 per cent of the Aberdeen South Labour vote that may be looking to desert. Where will this vote go – Nationalist or Unionist?  

Grampian region is also where Scottish support (just shy of majority support) for Brexit is strongest. Partly this is thanks to the effects the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has had on the traditional economy there. Alone of the parties, the Conservatives have been able to articulate how repatriating fisheries policy is in the local interest.

The unknown quantity is which way the Lib Dem vote in this region will go. Once strong in the Borders, it has now gone Tory, principally in order to better defend the Union. Will this direction of drift be replicated in the northern battlegrounds? The Lib Dems are only polling between 5 and 15% in these constituencies. But though their numbers are small, they are nevertheless big enough to swing the result.  Will these tactical voting Lib Dems put Brexit first, and vote SNP, or their overwhelming preference for the Union first, and lend their vote to the Conservatives?

The margins are incredibly tight. The fate of the Union, as well as the general election is the prize.

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