The tendency in Scotland is to write off sympathy for Brexit but, just as I warned in this column five years ago, there is a substantial eurosceptic minority looking for a voice. The last time there were EU elections in 2014 Scotland returned a Ukip MEP with over 140,000 votes and 10.5 per cent of the vote. On 23 May, when the European elections that were not meant to take place will be held, the Brexit Party should pick up that seat if it offers a rational and inoffensive home for that existing support. Indeed it could do even better if there is a significant fall in Conservative or Labour support.
In England and Wales the Conservative Party is already on its way to a collapse. Reports from members out on the stump for council elections on 2 May already make for harrowing reading back at Tory HQ with tales of doors being slammed in canvassers’ faces, donations drying up and members resigning from the party. What had been a trickle of dissent over first, the Prime Minister’s Chequers betrayal and then her surrender by way of the EU’s Withdrawal Agreement, became a torrent of protests when the UK did not leave the EU on 29 March as promised incessantly by Theresa May.
Over a hundred (and growing) Conservative council candidates and Tory association chairmen have written to the press warning of what could become an existential shock to the party’s actual survival. Social media is full of Tweets and posts about supporters never voting Conservative again so long as Theresa May is leader and the party does not honour its commitment to deliver Brexit.
The latest UK polling for the European Parliament elections makes shocking reading for Theresa May’s Conservative Party. A YouGov survey shows Labour ahead on 24 per cent with Conservatives on 16 per cent and the Brexit Party – even before it had officially launched on 15 per cent.
Ukip is below on 14 per cent and the Liberal Democrats slipping to 8 per cent, and the Independent Group formed of Remain defectors from the Labour and Conservatives (and now called Change UK) on 7 per cent. SNP/Plaid Cymru polled 6 per cent.
One opinion survey is, however, only a snapshot; further evidence is necessary to identify trends that suggest a credible consistency in support. Unfortunately for the Conservatives a second poll by Opinium provided that the day after with again Labour first (29 per cent) and Conservatives second (17 per cent) – with Ukip third (13 per cent) and the Brexit Party already fourth (12 per cent). The Liberal Democrats came in at 10 per cent, Greens and SNP both 6 per cent and Change UK on 4 per cent.
I expect the freshness of the Brexit Party and the pulling power of its charismatic yet Marmite leader Nigel Farage to help it grow, to the cost of Ukip support. Candidates will be important, but the trend is highly likely for the Brexit Party to take over where Ukip has left off.
Importantly, note how in both polls if the support for Ukip and Brexit Party are put together it is larger than that of the Conservatives, totalling 29 per cent in YouGov and 25 per cent in Opinium. The Tories are in dire trouble, with still five weeks to go this can only get worse for Theresa May. The Daily Telegraph, the unofficial organ of Conservative sentiment is railing against May and urging leadership regime change, while two former Chairmen of the backbench 1922 Committee say the rules to depose the leader can easily be altered.
Despite all the foregoing, Scotland is different. In the UK referendum the majority of Scottish voters chose Remain and the Scottish Conservative Party has reflected this, with its Holyrood leader, Ruth Davidson, and Scottish Secretary in May’s Cabinet, David Mundell, both devout uber Remainers. Initially, three of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs sided against the Withdrawal Agreement but that reduced by the time of the third vote. Without an elected figurehead to rally around, and conscious of the need to continue the revival of the party in Scotland any display of recalcitrance in the ranks is also scarce.
But wait, there was a City of Edinburgh Council by-election in Leith last week that might suggest all is not well with Conservative voters, if not party activists. The Tories talked their chances up, using a hard-working candidate and their good performance in the 2017 council elections to justify the bold claim that only they could beat the SNP. In the end their man came an embarrassing fourth with 10.7 per cent of the vote– but more importantly suffered a 3.7 per cent drop in support.
Could the levee be about to break? It’s hard to be certain, for strong local issues over trams and housing development had recently been in play, causing Labour to lose their last Leith councillor and come third to the SNP winner and Green runner up, both of whom increased their vote share. But the Tories were surprised by their reversal.
Beyond scooping-up previous Scottish Ukip votes and disillusioned Conservatives there is a not insubstantial group of SNP voters who voted for Leave in the EU referendum. Ashcroft polling estimated some 36 per cent of the SNP support back in 2016 got behind Brexit, but currently there is no natural party for eurosceptic nationalists to vote when the UK is meant to be leaving the EU. If the Brexit Party can convince enough of that group to put leaving the EU before their sympathy for leaving the UK – in an election that will become a plebiscite about the EU – then it should not just win one MEP, but could just sneak a second. Some private polling I have seen suggest the SNP could lose 17 per cent of its vote to the Brexit Party.
For the Brexit Party the Scottish political landscape may not look as fertile as it does in England and Wales – where the sense of voter outrage over May’s repeated broken promises is tangible – but it is not barren. With some careful cultivation the Brexit Party should be able to consolidate the eurosceptic support behind it and win a seat. If it can provide an appealing Scottish campaign it could go on to surprise its opponents and give Scottish eurosceptics, be they nationalists or unionists, the voice they have deserved for the last decade.