Scottish Election 2021: How Conservative ineptitude is a major factor in divided SNP's continued dominance – Kirsty Strickland

Even with all the unpredictability that a pandemic brings, there are still some things we can be sure will feature in the Holyrood election campaign.

We will see an outpouring of bile and abuse on social media. Leaders will make pleas for respectful debate which will ultimately be ignored.

Soundbites will reign supreme and if any of the chosen slogans haven’t infiltrated your subconscious by polling day then campaign managers will feel like they haven’t done their jobs properly.

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Unless vetting processes have improved considerably in recent years, there is sure to be at least one front-page scandal involving a newbie candidate. The other parties will howl and rage at how far standards have slipped, then keep schtum when one of their own candidates is revealed to be a bit of an arse.

It's not all doom and gloom though, there are some positive certitudes too.

In recent years, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has starred in some of the most iconic campaign photos in Scottish politics.

Whether he is water-skiing or riding on a tractor; dressed as a wizard or being attacked by a furious ram, the resulting photo is always pure gold.

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Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has starred in some of the most iconic campaign photos in Scottish politics in recent years

On a visit to a farm in 2016, Willie Rennie explained the method behind his campaign madness to a TV crew.

“We like to organise our visits to send a message, in pictorial terms, of exactly what we’re asking for – and I think this does it very well today.”

As he said those words, two frisky pigs behind him chose that moment to send a clear message about how in love they were.

Those of us who follow Mr Rennie’s wacky campaign photo ops more closely than is probably healthy were thrilled to see him back in action this week, perched on a giant deckchair chair in South Queensferry. He was ostensibly there to promote his party’s pledge of a guaranteed job for every teacher, but I like to think he was also sending a message about resilience in the face of adversity.

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has allowed Ruth Davidson to do much of the heavy lifting in the cut and thrust of debate, says Kirsty Strickland (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Another election certainty is that divided parties don’t do well. It’s accepted wisdom that a party distracted by infighting will have a hard time winning the trust of voters.

The SNP has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Remember when their representatives were described as “robots” for their unwillingness to deviate from the party line? They were discipline personified. Those days are long gone.

Some of their most ferocious disagreements stem from the Westminster group of MPs, but Holyrood has its fair share of family drama too.

They’ve moved well past the point of merely airing their dirty laundry in public. Now they’re hanging it from electricity lines and posting photos of it all over social media. On Friday, Alex Salmond announced his latest vanity project. The Alba Party will stand candidates in list seats and has already announced some low-to-medium profile SNP defections.

Nicola Sturgeon is still the most popular party leader in the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

And yet, Nicola Sturgeon is still the most popular party leader in the UK. The idea that she won’t be returned as First Minister in May is about as likely as Willie Rennie’s amorous pigs suddenly taking flight.

It looks like the warring SNP will prove to be the exception to the rule on divided parties. Perhaps because that rule relies on the assumption that opposition parties will be competent enough to capitalise on the internal strife of others.

At the last Holyrood election, the Scottish Tories relegated Scottish Labour to third place. The last five years should have seen them build on that success and become a credible main party of opposition.

Instead, they’ve not been able to break free of the mould they fashioned for themselves: of a one-issue party, unquestionably *against* independence but standing *for* very little.

Douglas Ross has had an easy ride during his first seven months as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Ruth Davidson has done all the heavy lifting at Holyrood and, save for a few TV interviews, we’ve not seen that much of him.

By taking a hands-off approach he has avoided any major gaffes. But in his attempts to enter the fray in recent weeks, his clean slate has looked like inexperience. His public proclamation that Nicola Sturgeon had broken the Ministerial Code before she had even given her evidence to the Holyrood inquiry was a huge misstep.

As was his decision to disregard James Hamilton’s verdict that the First Minister had not broken the ministerial code and press on with a vote of no confidence anyway.

His Downing Street colleagues aren’t making his job any easier. In their desperate attempts to try and save the Union, they are actively harming the election chances of the Scottish Tories under their new leader.

Their latest proposal is to fly the Union flag on all UK government buildings. It will not affect buildings in Northern Ireland but the other devolved nations will be brought together in blissful harmony under the colours of red, white and blue.

They also plan to heal the constitutional divide by triggering a new battle over Scotland’s powers. Lawyers acting for the UK government intend to take the Scottish government to court over new legislation that embeds the UN convention on children’s rights into Scottish law, claiming that it unlawfully impacts UK legislation.

With friends like these, Douglas Ross doesn’t need enemies. Though he doesn’t exactly help himself. In recent days, Mr Ross has faced entirely foreseeable criticism over his decision to continue as an MP after the Holyrood elections, where he hopes to win a seat. He has said that he intends to donate his MSP salary to charity but the “double-jobbing” accusation is something that his opponents will seize upon during the campaign.

It’s not the best start to an election campaign for a new leader. In the weeks ahead, he might want to reflect on how the ineptitude of his own party is a major contributing factor in the SNPs continued dominance.

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