At the time of their 1997 wipeout, the Scottish Tories were at least hated. When I was reporting from the Scottish Parliament some 14 years later, things were even worse: there was curiosity, even pity, for Tory supporters. One Tory MSP told me the party should rename itself “the effing Tories” because that’s what they had become known as. Voting Conservative was no longer seen as a giant evil, more a harmless perversion – like cross-dressing (or cricket). Then Ruth Davidson came along, then Jeremy Corbyn, then the SNP with its obsession with referenda – and now, everything has changed.
The above graph shows the latest voting intention in Scotland, with the Tories soaring above Labour and winning the support of a third of Scots. The Conservative and Unionist party is becoming the unionist coalition, with former Labour voters now giving up on the shell that their party has become. Even under the energetic leadership of Kezia Dugdale, the institutional decay – and the Corbyn factor – has proved too much.
On this Panelbase/Sunday Times poll, the Scottish Tories are poised to take several seats away the SNP, perhaps taking a dozen seats in all – but the last general election taught us that you can’t really extrapolate seat changes from voting shares, so I’d treat this with a pinch of salt. But it’s now possible to see the Davidson factor (and the Corbyn factor) at work. My feeling is that there isn’t much of a proper conservative revival in Scotland – people are sick of being harassed by the SNP, horrified at the prospect of another divisive referendum campaign when opinion hasn’t changed since the last time they were asked. And they quite like Ruth Davidson.
This also helps explain why Theresa May agreed to Davidson’s request that the foreign aid pledge was protected – something important for her brand of Scottish Toryism. Pete Wishart, the MP for Perth who once declared that “we loathe Tories in Scotland,” will be feeling a little nervous. Perhaps even Angus Robertson will wonder about the safety of his Moray constituency – which was 49.9pc for Brexit. So at least half of that constituency will be sick of the SNP claiming that “Scotland” supported Remain, airbrushing out the one million Scots who voted for Leave.
The Brexit aftermath, the SNP’s attempt to pretend that every Scot voted Remain, Nicola Sturgeon’s threat of a second referendum and the stunning implosion of the UK Labour Party all seems to be focusing minds. Once again, something pretty extraordinary is happening in Scotland and my sense is that it doesn’t have much to do with Theresa May. She isn’t making things worse, which is quite a result. I suspect the PM’s persona; mission in Scotland can be summed up in three words: don’t mess it up.