As speculation about the next election starts to settle into the “will this be 1992 or 1997” range, one group who could be forgiven for breaking into a cold sweat at the invocation of those dates is the Scottish Conservatives.
For them, 1992 was a very enjoyable night which saw them defy expectations to not only hold all ten seats they were defending, but scoop up an extra in Aberdeen South; 1997 was an extinction event.
So it is surely a testament to the work they have put into rebuilding the party’s position over the past ten years that even on current polling, a repeat of that annus horribilis seems unlikely. “In 1997 the story was all about how Scotland would be Tory-free”, says one experienced source, “and that simply isn’t the case this time.”
With the slump in the Scottish National Party’s ratings following the departure of Nicola Sturgeon and arrest of her husband in connection with an ongoing fraud investigation, those I spoke to are confident that the Conservatives are well-placed to hold on to the six seats they retained in 2019.
The question is whether they can go any further – and this is where the renaissance of the Labour Party is probably a problem.
On a tactical level, the Tories have benefited greatly from the polarisation of Scottish politics around the constitution since the referendum in 2014. In 2016, they cemented their position as primary challenger to the Nationalists by taking second place at Holyrood, and a year later secured 13 seats at Westminster.
Yet if they were to lose that mantle back to Labour, it would hurt: the risk of being the party for most of Scotland’s most committed unionist voters is that they’re the ones most prepared to vote tactically for other pro-UK parties. If the idea that only Labour is a realistic challenger to the SNP re-asserts itself, it could become self-fulfilling.
The extent to which the national narratives shapes the Scottish campaign will also matter. It would be much more congenial for the Conservatives if the decline of the SNP were the main story, rather than a broader time-for-change one centred on Westminster.
So far, at least, it’s the former that’s winning out, and with aforementioned police inquiry running alongside a seemingly endless string of bad news stories on other governance issues, it is not impossible to imagine the Nationalists hogging the headlines all the way to polling day whether they like it or not.
If so, there are some areas where the Tories could make gains on a good night, most obviously Ayr and East Renfrewshire, where they won seats on the current boundaries in 2017. A new seat in Aberdeenshire is apparently notionally Conservative, and one veteran I spoke to mentioned Argyll and Bute as a possible, although on current boundaries it hasn’t been blue since 1983.
One recently-fertile area thought not to be in contention, however, is Perthshire. It’s an old Tory stomping ground, and in 2017 the party both returned Luke Graham in Ochil and South Perthshire and fell just 21 votes short of defeating Pete Wishart in Perth and North Perthshire.
Yet the SNP machine there is apparently very strong; says one campaigner: “They took their eye off the ball in 2017. That won’t happen again.”
Given the pace at which events are developing north of the border, it is still a long way out from which to try and forecast the outcome of the next election in Scotland. Due to the vagaries of First Past the Post, there is a relatively narrow difference between a night where the Nationalists mostly hold Labour off and one where their MPs start falling in droves.
At present, it looks as though the Tories will play only a supporting role in any such route, if it materialises. And if it does, they might face an uphill slog persuading their most natural voters to back them if that appears to risk splitting the pro-UK vote and letting a Nat through the middle.
After taking a strong second at two successive Holyrood elections and that stand-out night in 2017 (and privately strategists were disappointed with just 13 seats), that must be immensely frustrating. But all parties slip back from time to time – and a floor of six seats is a much stronger foundation to build back from than one of zero.