In 2017, the Conservatives were bailed out of a disastrous reversal in England by the long-anticipated (and oft-despaired-of) revival of the Party’s fortunes in Scotland.
The phalanx of 13 Scottish Tories, alongside the ten Democratic Unionist MPs, allowed Theresa May to stay in office and produced, alongside the Prime Minister’s own instincts, a government unusually sensitive to unionist concerns.
Both of those lifelines are badly frayed as Boris Johnson prepares to lead the party into this winter’s election. The Tories’ relationship with their DUP foederati has been shattered by the Prime Minister’s deal, only weeks after the warmth of the cross-party relationship appeared to be on display at the Conservative Conference.
Meanwhile the Party’s Scottish flank is also under threat. The conventional wisdom is that the Tories face a substantial net loss to the SNP. Electoral Calculus predicts that eight Scottish Tories will fall, and whilst observers may quibble about the precise make-up of those seats, the overall number is plausible.
Yet if the Conservatives lose ground in pro-Remain London, as anticipated, then the loss of another ten seats in Scotland makes the road to a majority increasingly difficult, not to mention further undercutting the Party’s unionist bona fides.
Fortunately, the volatility of this election cuts both ways. Whilst a net loss is certainly a plausible – and perhaps the most plausible – outcome, there are other analyses out there which are more bullish about the Tories’ prospects in Scotland. Perhaps none more so than Ian Smart, a left-wing commentator and lawyer, who predicts a net Conservative gain of three.
The basis for this counter-case is twofold. First, the Scottish Conservatives have a simple story to tell pro-UK voters at the election, especially in seats they already hold: stick with us to stop the SNP. This may not only appeal to 2017 Tory voters but could also cut through to pro-UK Labour or Liberal Democrat voters in those seats, encouraging them to consolidate behind the Conservative incumbent as the anti-Nationalist option.
Second, there is a not-inconsiderable chance that the Tories might also pick up one or more seats to offset any losses elsewhere. The Party has already started shining a spotlight on five constituencies where they’re close on the heels of the SNP. If they can persuade local unionist voters that the Tory candidate is best-placed to oust the SNP MP, gains are not out of the question.
Fewer than 4000 votes can help defeat the SNP in 5 key seats:
Perth and North Perthshire 21
Lanark and Hamilton East 266
Edinburgh South West 1,097
Central Ayrshire 1,267
Argyll and Bute 1,328
— Miles Briggs MSP (@MilesBriggsMSP) October 29, 2019
All of this is bolstered by the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has cut Scottish Labour off at the knees by openly indicating that he’s prepared to afford the Nationalists a second independence referendum in exchange for their putting him in Downing Street.
Labour has already lost a huge chunk of Scotland’s left-leaning voters, as those inclined towards independence are now much more likely to support the SNP (or, at Holyrood, the Greens). Thus Labour’s remaining Scottish vote leans unionist, and any suggestion that the Party is in bed with the SNP will only help the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats trying to woo their voters.
Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that it is much easier for the Scottish Tories to fight an election on a Brexit deal – even one which is problematic from a unionist perspective, as Johnson’s definitely is – than as the harbingers of No Deal.
Of course, there is a difference between this pathway being a theoretical possibility and actually carrying it off. The Party’s triumph in 2017 was delivered by a combination of Ruth Davidson’s abilities as a message-carrier and James Kanagasooriam’s data-led targeting strategy. It remains to be seen to what extent Jackson Carlaw – who appears to be fronting the campaign instead of Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary – and his team will be able to replicate them. But they deserve CCHQ’s full support in the attempt.