Ruth Davidson’s resurgent Conservatives were last night in talks to form pro-UK alliances in Scotland’s town halls in an attempt to minimise the SNP’s influence on local politics.
In local authorities across the country, Tory councillors entered negotiations with other political parties following a council election that saw their support surge.
Yesterday Conservatives on Edinburgh City Council met with Labour and the Lib Dems to see whether a “Unionist coalition” could take control of the council, which was previously run by a Labour administration propped up by the SNP.
A similar move was being mooted on Angus Council, one of two local authority areas where the SNP lost its outright majority following Thursday’s local elections.
Conservatives were also in talks with other parties in areas including Perth and Kinross and Moray, where they gave the SNP a bloody nose by increasing their representation in an election that saw no party achieve an outright majority in any of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas.
Davidson, however, has a major battle on her hands, with the SNP determined to increase their grip on Scotland’s four biggest cities, including running Glasgow for the first time, and a host of other council areas. Moreover, attempts to form pro-Unionist alliances will depend on Labour overcoming its natural reluctance to deal with the Conservatives during a general election campaign.
Despite enduring a hugely disappointing election, Labour finds itself in the position of king-maker in many council areas and how these local authorities are run will depend on whether Labour throws its weight behind the SNP or the Tories.
In Edinburgh, the Conservatives did not do quite enough to defeat the SNP – ending up with 18 seats to the SNP’s 19.
After initial cross-party discussions yesterday, a Tory source told Scotland on Sunday: “We believe the only possibility to bring a stable administration to the city chambers in Edinburgh is the possibility of a pan-Union party coalition. But we are conscious that there is a long way to go.”
But last night SNP councillors were locked in talks with Labour with sources suggesting that a deal was edging closer.
Tory strategists believe they can put the squeeze on Labour ahead of the general election by forcing them to make a choice between working with them or propping up the SNP. “Either they support us or they go with the independence-supporting SNP,” said one senior Conservative.
In Aberdeen, the SNP took most seats in the former Labour-run council putting the Nationalists in pole position to run the administration. Labour had led a coalition there with the Tories and three independent councillors.
The SNP returned 19 councillors and have pledged to speak to every party except the Tories. A deal with the four Lib Dems would be enough to secure the 23 seats required for a majority in the 45-strong council.
But the Conservatives – having upped their representation to 11 – are exploring possible ways to keep the Nationalists out.
Conservative deputy group leader Alan Donnelly said working with Labour and the Lib Dems was “an option”.
“I can’t believe how well we did. We have gone from two councillors to 11,” said Donnelly. “But the way the maths has worked out nobody has overall control. There is a lot of horse-trading to be done.
“The SNP are the only group to have ruled anything out and that is that they are not prepared to work with us.”
Angus Council has been an SNP powerbase for years. But with the SNP falling from 14 seats to nine and the Tories doubling their numbers from four to eight, change is on the cards. Already there has been talk of an “Angus Alliance” being resurrected to run the council involving the Tories doing a deal with the nine independents and two Lib Dems.
A source close to the discussions said: “The people have spoken and have spoken for change, so it is very unlikely that the administration could include the SNP. There has to be some agreement between the independents and the Conservatives and it could easily include the Lib Dems as well. Those are the discussions that are happening at the moment. I think we will end up with some sort of accord along those lines, which will give a new start to the council.”
Dundee was the second local authority where the SNP lost its outright majority, but as the largest party it will hang on to power. The Dundee SNP group leader John Alexander has said his 14 members will lead a minority administration or do a deal.
Some had raised the possibility of the three Tories, nine Labour councillors, two Lib Dems and the veteran independent Ian Borthwick, who may become Lord Provost, cobbling together a deal. But Scotland on Sunday understands that Labour is not prepared to work with the Conservatives even though the Lib Dems may not rule it out.
The challenge the Tories face if they want to be propped up by Kezia Dugdale’s Labour was illustrated yesterday when the party’s Scottish Executive Committee yesterday said its council groups would only agree to anti-austerity power-sharing deals.
All local Labour groups will be required to apply to a working group of the SEC to set out in detail the policy aims of any proposed administration.
Labour has long criticised the Conservatives for imposing austerity and has criticised the SNP for passing on “Tory cuts”.
In Glasgow, Susan Aitken, new SNP leader of the city council, said she was “very open” to forming a coalition with the Greens to run the city. But she also stressed she would have “no qualms” about going it alone and running a minority administration.
Aitken had hoped to get an overall majority, but nevertheless hailed a “historic” result that saw the SNP become the largest party in the authority for the first time in its history.
There are now 39 SNP councillors in the city, compared with 31 from Labour. The Tories, who previously had just one councillor, now have eight, while the Greens have also made gains, winning seven seats. Talks will take place with the Greens over the next few days, Aitken said, even though Martin Bartos, the leader of the party in the city, was taken to hospital after a bike accident.
Meanwhile, in Perth and Kinross, the Conservative group leader, Ian Campbell, was confident of running the council after returning 17 councillors to topple the SNP in one of its traditional strongholds.
Campbell said: “We are the largest party, with 17 councillors, and to get a majority of 21 we need another four. We are talking to the Lib Dems, independents and the Labour member. I don’t think there is much chance of the SNP coming out smiling from this. I am fairly confident that come the council meeting on 17 May we will be forming the administration for Perth and Kinross council.”
Similar talks were being held in Moray and Aberdeenshire, the backyards of Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond respectively.
In East Lothian, local SNP councillor Kenny McLeod thought that the Tories would do a deal with Labour to keep his party out.
“The Tories have an extra four on board which is unbelievable – especially in Tranent and Prestonpans – unheard of in the past. I think Labour will go with Tories – even if not in a formal coalition – they will try and keep us at bay.”