While some traditional Conservatives who are opposed to Brexit and unenthusiastic about Boris Johnson are swithering about which party to support, the Scottish Tories are benefiting from tactical voting by unionists, writes Murdo Fraser.
What a difference one month makes. At the end of October, when a December election was proposed, political commentators were busy writing the obituaries for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
With Boris Johnson supposedly massively unpopular in Scotland, a country which had heavily voted ‘Remain’ now being asked to support Brexit, and the popular Ruth Davidson having departed the scene, it was all adding up to a perfect storm for the Scottish Tories. Defending 13 seats at Westminster, we were heading for another Tory wipe-out to mirror that of 1997.
Four weeks later, and the outlook now looks very different. This general election campaign has suffered from a scarcity of specific Scotland-only polling, but at the weekend Panelbase stated that Scottish Conservative support is at 28 per cent, up seven per cent since the end of October.
According to analysis by everyone’s favourite psephologist, Professor Sir John Curtice, this would give Scottish Conservatives 12 seats, a net loss of just one since 2017.
The poll findings confirm what Conservative campaigners have been finding on the doorstep right across Scotland.
Yes, there are some traditional Conservative voters, strongly opposed to Brexit and unenthusiastic about Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, who have been swithering in their support for their party, perhaps considering moving to the Liberal Democrats.
But elsewhere there has been movement in the Conservative direction, and from some surprising quarters.
I have certainly met traditional Labour voters, some of whom have voted for that party all their lives, who are now going to vote Conservative for the first time, so disillusioned are they with Jeremy Corbyn and the constant flip-flopping by Labour on the question of a second independence referendum.
I have met traditional Lib Dem voters who will vote tactically for the Conservatives in seats where there is a straight contest with the SNP, as they believe that defeating Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for indyref2 trump their views on Brexit.
I have even met life-long SNP voters who will, for the first time ever, be casting a vote for the Conservatives because they want to see Brexit delivered. All this adds up to a growth in support for the Scottish Conservatives, and means that our chances of holding the seats that we won in 2017, and indeed winning some extra, have been substantially enhanced.
At the heart of the Conservative offer in this election are two simple messages, ‘Get Brexit Sorted’, and ‘Say No to a Second Independence Referendum’. The first part of this is resonant with the two in five Scots who voted ‘Leave’, and also with many Remainers who now just want to see us move on from the last three-and-a-half years of dither and drift.
When it comes to the question of a second independence referendum, it is now widely recognised that the Scottish Conservatives have the most credible position on this, making it clear that a Conservative government will not countenance another vote. In this, we have been substantially assisted by Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence on putting indyref2 at the heart of the general election campaign.
We should never forget that in 2014 we were promised that the independence referendum would be a “once-in-a-generation” event. That was the wording used in the SNP’s now derided White Paper, and was repeated many times on the campaign trail. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon went further, when she told the Scottish Parliament in August 2014 that the referendum was a “once-in-a-lifetime” event.
Having claimed that the Brexit vote in 2016 meant that there had been a material change in circumstances, Nicola Sturgeon’s position is now that she wants to see indyref2 regardless of what happens with Brexit.
Even if there is another EU referendum, with a vote to remain in the EU, she will not give up her demand for another independence referendum. The whole “material change” argument has been exposed as bogus, with the SNP determined to press on with indyref2 regardless of all the promises they made back in 2014.
Billions for Scotland
The Conservative party manifesto, published last Sunday, gives a flavour of what a new Tory government would deliver. Far from being a hard-right programme for government, this is the prospectus for a One-Nation Conservative adminstration.
The pledge to increase the national living wage to two-thirds of average earnings, and widened to reach everyone over 21, means an average pay rise of £4,000 per year for four million people across the UK by 2024.
Coupled with a pledge to increase the National Insurance threshold to £9,500 in the next year, this represents real help for the lowest paid, and a substantial step forward in tackling in-work poverty. In addition, the benefits freeze will end, and the triple lock for pensioners will be maintained.
The spending commitments in the manifesto deliver £3.1 billion in Barnett consequentials to the Scottish Government over the next four years. That provides funding to recruit, if the Scottish Government so wishes, 5,000 additional nurses for the NHS here.
Andrew Neil’s evisceration of Nicola Sturgeon on primetime TV on Monday, exposing her Government’s woeful record on health, helps reinforce the importance of this issue in the minds of voters.
There are record sums of spending going into the NHS across the UK, but the SNP are presiding over a whole series of delivery failures, and the public are increasingly paying attention.
So, with a positive policy platform, poll ratings heading in the right direction, and a good reception on the doorsteps across Scotland, it is little wonder that Scottish Tory activists have a spring in their step. With two weeks to go until polling day, we are taking to the streets with renewed enthusiasm, looking not to just to hold the seats we won in 2017, but to make gains at the expense of the SNP.
In marginal seats across the country, we are benefitting from tactical voting from unionists who are sick of hearing about the second independence referendum, and from pro-Brexit Nationalists who just want to see Brexit sorted. Far from penning our obituaries, the commentators need to get ready to write about our successes on 12 December.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland & Fife