Theresa May came to Scotland today to offer her support to Ruth Davidson. Notionally, the Scottish Tory leader is supposed to support the Prime Minister but in this election, Ruth is a greater asset to the Conservative and Unionist party than Theresa.
Today’s YouGov poll for The Times confirms as much. Mrs May has a net approval rating in Scotland of -17; Ms Davidson’s is +10. Two thirds of those voters who endorsed Labour candidates in 2014 think Davidson is doing a good job and so, remarkably, do one in three voters who supported the SNP two years ago.
The same poll was interesting precisely because there was nothing startling in it. It reported that the Tories are on course to win 29 percent of the vote in Scotland and, assuming there has been no polling malfunction, this is the new normal in Scotland. Anything below 25 percent of the vote for the Tories would now be reckoned a disappointment. Which, considering they won less than 15 percent of the Scottish vote just two years ago, constitutes a remarkable advance.
Managing expectations is a new phenomenon for the Scottish Tories. The latest polling suggests they could win as many as eight seats, though it remains entirely possible they could double their 2015 share of the vote and still win just four or five of Scotland’s 59 constituencies.
Some party insiders worry, too, that every time the Scottish Tories seem to be on the verge of genuine – if still relative – popularity that evidence of their advance causes a backlash that essentially erodes a hefty chunk of the progress they have made. There remain many who have seen too many false dawns to entirely believe the reliability of the dawn that will break on the morning of June 9.
Yet at the same time, one analysis of last year’s Scottish parliament election, in which the party took 22 percent of the vote and finished with 31 MSPs, concluded that as much as an additional ten percent of the electorate would be prepared to endorse Conservative candidates if they thought those candidates had a plausible chance of winning. In other words, the Tories hadn’t come close to exhausting their ‘natural’ potential. Give those voters a reason to believe, the theory goes, and they will flock to the Conservative and Unionist standard.
Hence the proliferation of ‘Only the Tories can win here’ leaflets now dropping through letterboxes across Scotland. Hence the need to talk up Tory chances even at the risk this might backfire and lead to a measure of embarrassment on election night if predicted, much-hyped, Tory gains do not materialise. Voting Tory in Scotland remains a collective action problem: I’ll do it if you do it but how can I be sure you will really do it?
Which is also why Ruth Davidson trolled the Labour party this morning. You don’t need to be afraid of the Tories any more, not when the party is, by Davidson’s estimation anyway, ‘back in the centre ground of Scottish politics’. Not when it is ‘committed to workers’ rights’ and to ‘boosting low pay’. ‘In great swathes of the country, it is only the Scottish Conservatives who are strong enough to take on the SNP. And in many places we can only win if you join us’.
‘Let me do a job for you’ she implored Labour’s remaining voters (conveniently ignoring the manner in which Ms Davidson is not actually on the ballot this election). ‘We will stand up for the quiet majority in Scotland’ – a nice Nixonian touch, that – ‘who, like us, have had enough of the SNP’s games and are simply looking for somebody to take them on’.
There is an audience for this in Scotland now and, for some voters anyway, a palpable desire for some sort of no-nonsense-taking alternative to the SNP. Labour, except in Edinburgh South, can’t do that so vote for someone who can.
It is a simple message and not a stupid one, being the natural reaction to the SNP’s promise to ‘stand up for Scotland’. Fine. But someone needs to stand up to the SNP too. So put tribal allegiances and past loyalties to one side and vote for a Tory candidate for the first time in your life.
So far so good and since it worked in last year’s Holyrood elections and in the recent council elections, there’s no good reason for not mining this strategy until the last Labour pip squeaks.
But the Tory party knows that saying No to a referendum is not enough. That’s why, even though this is a Westminster election, it also wants to make the vote a verdict on the SNP’s record in government. There are plenty of voters in Scotland who have been happy to vote SNP without necessarily endorsing the idea of independence. They wanted an unapologetic government at Holyrood that had the energy and imagination to make the most of the powers devolved to Edinburgh. Actually, they didn’t even want that: some of them just valued the idea of competency and thought the SNP best placed to provide that.
And some of those voters – not many, but some, and enough to potentially make a difference – are crossing from the SNP to the Tories, scunnered by what they take to be the SNP’s lacklustre performance in government. This is most apparent, to the extent it is a real trend at all, in the north-east of Scotland and in Perthshire; the seats the SNP seized first but which have never been hotbeds of political radicalism.
That may help explain why, for the first time in a while, support for the SNP now trails that for independence. Traditionally, this was usually the case but since the great realignment of Scottish politics support for the SNP and support for independence were for a long time neck-and-neck.
Now, again according to today’s Times poll, support for independence remains set at 45 percent but the SNP, which won almost 50 percent of the vote in 2015, is currently polling at 42 percent. That may yet creep up towards the magically-symbolic figure of 45 by polling day but, at present, the SNP is stuck in the low forties.
That is, granted, an expansive definition of ‘stuck’ but one of the curious aspects of this campaign in Scotland is the manner in which the Tories are preparing to claim victory even as, by any objective measurement, they lose the election. The SNP will win the most votes and the most seats in Scotland but because they will win fewer than they did in 2015 this will be interpreted as a defeat.
And there will be something in that, even if it requires a degree of contortion to see it. No matter, the Tories say that there should be no second referendum until there is ‘public consent’ for it. What public consent is, and how it may be measured, remains a mystery that neither Mrs May nor Ms Davidson nor David Mundell, the secretary of state, were prepared to say yesterday.
The Tory manifesto has not dared to rule out a referendum at any point in the next parliament but it is clear that is the government’s intention. No fresh referendum until after Brexit, until after the repatriation of powers, including fresh responsibilities for the devolved administrations, and no referendum until such time as these have been implemented and given time to bed-in.
That might be a line that will hold until the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021 but if it does it all but guarantees that election will be a referendum on the question of whether there should or should not be another referendum. This remains a long, long, game.
It is also all a reminder that the election in Scotland is very different to the election in England and Wales. When the Prime Minister spoke in Edinburgh this morning she said this ‘crucial’ election is ‘A general election which is defined by one question only: who can lead us through Brexit and get a deal that works for the whole United Kingdom? Who can lead our country, and strengthen our Union, in the years ahead?’
Spectator readers are astute enough to notice this is actually two questions, not one. A reminder, too, that the Scottish portion of what this election is about is sometimes just bolted on to the Prime Minister’s core text and that sometimes people don’t bother to hide or disguise the joins. That’s mildly telling too, you know.