James Millar: The SNP are keen to see Ruth Davidson’s Tory revival
Scottish local election results will give Nicola Strugeon's party the intelligence they need ahead of the general election.
The Tories will be the story in Scotland this weekend. Their surge in the polls will be made flesh as the local election results dribble in today. Their vote share will rise from the 13% they got at these elections last time out, there’ll be more Conservative councillors. And even then the bald figures will disguise the fact that there’s a lot of independents get elected that are Tory in all but the colour of their rosette. (So independents often support Tories but the Tories don’t support independence!)
Political journalists in Edinburgh and London will seize on the Conservative uptick with barely disguised glee. Will the SNP be quaking at Ruth Davidson’s Conservative revival? No. In fact they are looking forward to it, for two reasons.
First the local election results will give them an idea of where the Tory surge is going to come at the general election. Local elections use proportional representation, the Conservative vote share will be reflected in the results in terms of seats won. That won’t be the case at a first past the post general election.
The council elections will give the SNP all the info they need on where to channel resources to stop the Tories. For example there is much talk of Angus Robertson being under threat in his Moray seat, largely because that was the area of Scotland that came closest to backing Brexit.
But coverage of the contest there has overlooked a number of factors. The main one is Robertson’s healthy 9000 majority (though the SNP of all parties should know that no majority is safe when a tide has turned having wiped out bigger Labour leads in 2015), bolstered by his increased profile since the SNP became the third party in the Commons and cemented by the fact he is a brilliant campaigner who has masterminded most of the SNP’s success at the ballot box in recent years.
And much as the Tories would love to take the scalp of the SNP’s deputy leader, the SNP don’t want to lose him. If the local results show there is a genuine Conservative challenge in Moray the SNP will hand Robertson all the resources he needs to see it off. Interestingly party sources concede that they want Robertson returned not just because it would be embarrassing were he to lose but because there’s no-one to replace him as leader of the Westminster group and they fear discipline may breakdown among their MPs without him around.
The SNP have all but given up on the two seats that sound like electronic acts in the pop charts – WAK and BRS. Stuart Donaldson looks sunk in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (WAK). The youngster has failed to make his mark since getting elected and the Tories won in the same area at the Holyrood elections last year.
While Callum Kerr is widely admired for his stint as MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (BRS) but he has the smallest majority in Scotland and the Conservatives are so confident that their candidate John Lamont gave up the safety net of a Scottish parliament seat to take on the general election campaign. Lamont’s already been dubbed ‘Ruth’s man in London’ by some in his party before the formality of actually winning his seat.
But the local results will give the SNP free info on whether they should worry in Pete Wishart’s Perth seat, Callum McCaig’s constituency of Aberdeen South or indeed Kirsten Oswald’s East Renfrewshire perch.
Labour too will watch results around East Renfewshire. They’ve put up former Better Together boss Blair McDougall at the general election there in an effort to out-unionist the Conservative candidate. Most likely the two strong unionist candidates will split the vote and let Oswald back in but a good return for one party or the other in the council elections might give locals opposed to independence pause to swing behind whichever one looks like they could win. As the only seat they’ve any serious hope of recapturing Labour will be desperate for the Tories to flop there today.
The SNP will also be keeping a close eye on East Dunbartonshire. Former coalition minister Jo Swinson’s made the brave decision to fight for her old seat for the Lib Dems at the earliest opportunity. The whispers coming out of SNP HQ are that they are worried. The local election results will give a good indication of how tactical voters are willing to be to stop the SNP and their independence agenda.
The second reason the SNP will welcome talk of a Tory surge this weekend is that it suits their ends. As one senior source explained to me: “It’s very useful. If the Conservatives look like they are going to do well then it remains a plausible line for us to say that we’re the only party that can protect Scotland from the effects of a Tory landslide.”
Ironically were the Conservatives comeback to fail to fire at the local elections the SNP would find it harder to get their vote out come June 8 and a low turnout could actually see more of their seats fall to unionist parties.
More likely the Conservatives will be celebrating this weekend and the media narrative will be of Ruth Davidson riding high. Meanwhile the SNP will be celebrating actually coming out on top from these elections and, armed with electoral information and their own narrative of defending Scotland from Theresa May’s electoral steamroller, they’ll be celebrating again come June 8.
Picture by: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images.