General election: Council by-elections point to the key fight in Scotland – John McLellan

Recent council by-elections show rises in support for Conservatives and SNP, writes John McLellan.

Boris Johnson should return as PM unless the Tory manifesto is a disaster, says John McLellan (Picture: Frank Augstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The great, good and not-so-good of politics, journalism and public relations gathered at Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House on Thursday night for The Herald newspaper’s annual Scottish Politician of the Year awards bash, the first time in its 21 years the event has been held in the midst of a General Election campaign.

As the red wine washed down the roast beef, the chatter was dominated by the campaign and tales from the doorsteps and, however the conversations concluded by yesterday morning, the polarisation of Scottish politics between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives had become even more evident.

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Council by-elections in Moray and Aberdeen both showed growth in the Tory first preference vote, by 7.1 and 2.1 per cent respectively, but also a strengthening of SNP support by 0.7 and 11.8 per cent. The difference between the two SNP returns is easily explained because Labour didn’t stand in Moray’s Keith & Cullen ward while in Aberdeen’s Tory & Ferryhill its vote slumped by 12.8 per cent.

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It repeated the pattern in Inverness Central the week before, where Labour lost ten per cent with the SNP up 12.3 and Conservatives increasing by 2.9. Labour also lost 13.5 per cent the same day in Dunfermline Central where the SNP won the seat despite the Conservative vote going up.

In by-elections elsewhere, the Conservative support went up 8.7 in West Sussex and 17.4 in Chichester, the latter all the more remarkable for the 25.7 plunge in the Lib Dem vote, and the Tory vote was also up 6.3 in Cardiff.

Five national polls taken this week put the Conservatives on between 42 and 45 per cent, compared to Labour’s 27-32 and the Lib Dems on a maximum of 16 and the Brexit Party on five at most. With the Labour manifesto already being widely ridiculed by moderate supporters like writer Phillip Collins as a wish-list from a party which knows it’s heading for defeat there doesn’t seem any way up for Jeremy Corbyn.

Barring an unforeseen catastrophe or the unlikely event of another suicidal Tory manifesto, Boris Johnson is heading back to Number 10 with a workable majority and all the rebels replaced. February 1 looks very much like being Britain’s first day out of the EU and how ironic that thousands of Scots will be in Dublin for the rugby international.

Quip of the night

With a room full of opinion-formers, influences and decision-makers, Politician of the Year probably Scotland’s premier networking event and the Stables function room was as busy as ever to see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon lift the top award for the fifth time.

Picking up the E-Politician gong, Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser won’t have endeared himself to party bosses with the line of the night, quipping he was renaming his Twitter account Factcheck Scotland. A double check was perhaps needed from the judges in the Politics in Business category which went to Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay whose big achievement last year was nationalising the Ferguson Marine shipyard. We do live in strange times.

In years gone by, the last thing newspapers would publish was anything involving a competitor so perhaps readers will find it odd to be reading about a Herald event in The Scotsman, but times change and rival papers now regularly refer to each other and credit each other’s stories, and as the economics of the news industry continue to be shattered by the migration of advertising to social media and search engines, collaboration and consolidation are inevitable.

Very different to 20 years ago at the start of the Scottish Parliament actually two Scottish Politician of the Year bashes on the same night, St Andrew’s Day, The Herald’s at Prestonfield and The Scotsman’s at the National Museum, causing much confusion for taxi drivers. At The Scotsman event, the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave a speech containing pointed remarks about the paper and not surprisingly the boss Andrew Neil was not best pleased. There was no second year.

Borderline after-dinner gags

Entertainment at Politician of the Year was provided by the brilliant Dead Ringers impersonator Lewis MacLeod in the guise of Donald Trump, throwing in pinpoint take-offs of Boris Johnson, Barack Obama and George Galloway amongst others. Some of the gags were borderline, but no-one seemed to take offence.

Not so ex-Scotland and British Lions rugby star Roger Baird who has had to apologise after receiving complaints about his speech at a recent Glasgow University rugby club dinner, with material he has used before at similar events but without causing upset.

I know Roger and he is far from an offensive person and having heard some of his gags, on a 1-10 scale of risque rugby routines he probably scores two at most but these days that can be enough to cause trouble. It’s just as well the dinner wasn’t addressed by the particularly appalling ex-Wales player I had the misfortune to hear a couple of years ago and the truth is the after-dinner circuit is heavily populated by speakers whose out-dated attitudes would score nine or ten.

There are also some brilliant speakers and at a Murrayfield dinner eight years ago the insight from ex-England hooker Brian Moore about what it meant for him to represent his country was electrifying.

The worst was not a sports dinner, but an advertising industry Christmas lunch some years ago, when an agency sent a late stand-in comic, a Peter Sutcliffe-lookalike in a 70s-style frilly orange satin shirt and big bow tie. “Here’s some new material for you,” said a guest who brought his racist act to an abrupt halt by throwing him a pile of cracker jokes.

Christmas market fiasco a job for MI6

And talking of jokes, there was a real rib-tickler at Thursday’s Edinburgh full council meeting when trying to explain how the city administration has got into such a pickle over this year’s Christmas market, Council leader Adam McVey suggested it was all the fault of the opposition parties for not asking the right questions.

The controversy over how Underbelly was allowed to build the structures for Edinburgh’s Christmas in East Princes Street Gardens without planning permission isn’t going away, with a report to next week’s oolicy & sustainability committee begging more questions than providing answers.

But how questions can be raised in advance about information not made available or decisions taken in private will require powers of surveillance possessed only by MI6 and GCHQ. Bizarre.

John McLellan is the Conservative councillor for Craigentinny and Duddingston in Edinburgh