At first glance, this election has been no kinder to the Scottish Conservatives than the previous three. Although it is perhaps notable that it wasn’t markedly less kind, either. The Nationalist tsunami might have swept all before it, but the Tories went into the election with one seat and emerged with it on the other side.
This puts them, incredibly, on equal footing with the shattered remnants of the Scottish Labour Party.
So how good a campaign did the Scottish Conservatives actually have? And where does this leave them with regard to their two next electoral challenges: next year’s Scottish elections, and the General Election in 2020?
The 2015 campaign
The common thread that unites participants and observers of the Scottish Conservative campaign is tributes to Ruth Davidson.
“There were two A-list politicians in this election, and neither of them were candidates”, points out one activist. With Labour’s Jim Murphy embattled and vacillating and the Liberal Democrats nowhere, the Scottish Conservative leader has established herself as Nicola Sturgeon’s only substantial political rival.
Her dominance of the Conservative ‘air war’ is best exemplified by these pictures of Davidson striking a pose on a Tory tank.
The candidates the party hoped to return to Westminster – which included David Mundell, now Secretary of State for Scotland – featured prominently in their local campaigns but not in the national effort.
This played into a broader strategic decision not to over-emphasise a target seats approach. “We got our fingers burned in 2010”, reports another campaigner. “We declared ten targets and won one.”
This time the focus was much more on lifting the vote across the nation – with the overall effect of adding 20,000 voters to the Tory total since 2010, despite the extraordinary circumstances of the election and an undoubted downward pressure from tactical voting by Conservative voters.
Markers were apparently only called in to critical seats like Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (BRS) – where Tory John Lamont fell just 328 votes short of capturing a Lib Dem bastion and blocking the SNP – in the last week and a half of campaigning.
One veteran election fighter also claimed to have found it easier to run this time, with solid records in government and last year’s No campaign, than it had been from opposition.
However, despite an effective campaign the local Tories are reportedly disappointed to have emerged with a score draw, having been quietly confident of picking up both BRS and ‘WAK’ – West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, where they fell more than 7,000 votes short.
Nonetheless, as the only unionist party not to suffer a cataclysmic collapse on May 7 some members are quite bullish about the upcoming Scottish elections.
Some Conservatives think they’ve found a silver lining to the very big, very dark cloud that is the SNP’s astonishing election result: a chance to reshape the landscape of non-nationalist politics and become, in the words of one, “the authentic and authoritative voice of unionism in Scotland”.
The logic runs something like this: there are two million No voters in Scotland who will need effective political representation. The Labour Party, already shell-shocked and with its fabled machine revealed as a long-rusted memory, is in no position to provide it. The Tories are.
“People are running from the Labour leadership”, remarks one candidate. Another activist points out that for as long as he can remember, Labour have been an ‘anti’ party (anti-Tory, anti-separatism) but never hugely clear on what they were for.
Murphy’s parting shot at Len McCluskey, and the left-wing agitation against his leadership that led to it, suggests that Scottish Labour faces the same internal confrontation as the UK party. “They’ve no analysis of what their fundamental problems are”, explains one observer, who sums up the party’s position as “diabolical”.
The consensus seems to be that Labour will not be able to rebound quickly from this Westminster massacre – and the Scottish elections are only a year away.
Meanwhile the Conservatives have a strong leader – “No-one is going to emerge from the Lib Dems or Labour to challenge Sturgeon in Holyrood” – and a new tranche of activists recruited during the referendum and “blooded” in the general election campaign.
Davidson has also made a virtue – in an election where both Labour and Lib Dem figures have tried to distance themselves from the word ‘unionism’ – of her party’s unabashed pro-Union credentials, which leant the campaign an air of authenticity.
Others feel that now that the SNP have broken the tendons of ‘ancestor worship’ that held together the old Labour vote, the party will find it very difficult to win those voters back. And if it tacks left to try, it leaves more space to the Tories.
Another consequence may be the death of the assumption that Labour is the go-to home for pro-union tactical voters, which local Tories believe hurt them in the General Election. “It didn’t work”, says one simply, describing the well-publicised tactical voting campaign. Why try again?
Yet despite these good augers some sound notes of caution. The Scottish electoral system, although theoretically proportionate, still contains snares which may hinder Conservative prospects.
If the wheels haven’t come off the SNP bandwagon by next year, they could achieve another near-clean sweep in the constituency seats. This could still see them pick up MSPs from the regional lists as well, if their vote is high enough.
Meanwhile a high residual Labour vote should ensure a relatively strong list showing for them, whilst one activist raises the spectre of a separatist ‘Yes’ pact, wherein the SNP encourage their voters to back the Scottish Greens in the lists.
The Green leader, Patrick Harvie, had a good referendum and his party have a much higher profile than their sister party in England and Wales.
This could not only choke the space the Tories need to advance, but could ensure a second secessionist-majority parliament – and perhaps another referendum.
One cautious speculator suggests an upper limit to Tory hopes of about 20 MSPs – up from 15, but not the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for.
The next general election
Looking a little further ahead, there are relatively few predictions regarding the 2020 General Election.
As this BBC map of party turnout shows, there are several parts of Scotland where the Conservative vote is relatively strong, at 29 per cent or above – Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Moray, and the Borders in particular.
There are a few factors which could help push them over the line in some of these seats. The first is the unwinding of votes for other parties held together by special circumstances – such as Murphy’s iron grip on East Renfrewshire, whose predecessor seat had an 11,000 Tory majority in 1992 and where the Conservatives are confident of regaining the mantle of principle unionist party.
Then there is the suggestion that, with the Conservative position in some of these seats established, they may become the new beneficiaries of pro-Union voters’ quest for a new political home. Strong Liberal Democrat showings in BRS and WAK, which greatly damaged Tory prospects in both, seem unlikely to repeat themselves.
Meanwhile, the smallest SNP majority over Labour (in the aforementioned special case of East Renfrewshire) is still a whopping 3,718, which will make it very difficult for the party to mount an effective Westminster fightback.
Some also hold out hope of winning over ‘Tartan Tories’, centre-right, anti-Labour SNP voters in North East Scotland who may be alienated by the party’s new left-of-Labour pitch to central Scotland. “They’re under unsustainable tension”, said one Conservative activist of the current SNP coalition.
Finally, some believe that the sheer dominance of the SNP – a majority in Edinburgh, 56 MPs in London – may make unionist voters more likely to back the most viable opposition (even when that opposition is the Tories) than might otherwise have been the case.
“The SNP may be big”, says one long-time activist, “but that means there’s a lot to shoot at.”