After the triumph of 2016, fought on the basis of being a strong opposition to replace a wilting Scottish Labour, the expectation was that 2021 could be built on a raucous “Ruth Davidson for First Minister” campaign.
For a host of well-documented reasons that plan has been off the table for three years and the party has been in what feels like a constant regrouping exercise ever since, with Jackson Carlaw doing a sterling holding job as acting leader to earn the right to step up full-time, only to be defenestrated almost immediately and replaced by Douglas Ross.
The result suggests that every ounce of potential has been wrung from the ‘say no to Indyref2’ approach. So too must the effectiveness of the “Peach Vote Tory” tactical voting campaign be examined, which in the end resulted in a lot of Conservatives voting tactically on the constituency votes to boost support for the likes of Alex Cole-Hamilton and Daniel Johnson, but Labour and Lib Dem voters ignoring the message and not returning the favour.
This question of whether there should be another referendum aside – despite the Prime Minister and senior Conservatives insisting there will not be one, there might not be a better chance than this autumn to genuinely remove the threat of independence and years of instability once and for all – there is now an opportunity, if not a necessity, for the Scottish Conservatives to regroup, reorganise and focus on a programme for government which shows what can be done when Westminster and Edinburgh are not permanently at each other’s throats.
There are also questions to be asked about how to tackle the SNP’s ability to wash its hands of an atrocious record of achievement in government. While the Covid bounce might have been a factor in both the SNP’s victory and a lacklustre Labour Party’s triumph in Wales, it doesn’t absolve the opposition from the responsibility of communicating the failures of the government in such a way that persuades the electorate not to vote for five more years of the same.
The challenge facing the Scottish Conservatives is that Scottish Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar is unlikely to give them the same free pass as the hapless Richard Leonard, not if he recognises Labour’s real target is the thousands who have deserted them for the SNP, not wavering Conservatives.
But as long as Scottish Labour sees its revival through the old left-right prism and thinks there can be some sort of left alliance with nationalism then they will be left starving for votes while the SNP eats its lunch.
The next months are going to be fraught as the SNP ramps up the rhetoric on Indyref2 while facing the implementation of a host of unaffordable manifesto promises and the opposition’s job is to do everything they can to ensure that the days of the SNP claiming the credit for everything and the blame for nothing are over.
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh