SNP, not the Tories, will be election whipping boys in Scotland (and Swinney has just made things worse) – Murdo Fraser

Polls suggest the Conservatives will lose a large number of seats south of the Border but make gains in Scotland, helped by John Swinney’s big mistake

Last weekend saw the FA Cup and Scottish Cup finals kick off at exactly the same time, 3pm on Saturday. Two matches, two distinct competitions, four finalists, but the same sport, same rules, and identical timing. It might well have been a metaphor for how the general election is already starting to play out north and south of the Border. We are seeing two very different campaigns dependent on which part of the UK we are in.

In England and Wales, there is essentially a choice between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer as to who will occupy No 10 after July 4. The polls currently have Labour well ahead, which may be more a product of disenchantment with a Conservative government after 14 years, rather than any enthusiasm for Labour as a potential replacement.

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Sunak certainly has a battle on his hands. As the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in a row, he has not just his own legacy to defend but that of his four predecessors. There are, however, three factors in his favour which he will concentrate on exploiting over the next five weeks.

INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - MAY 23: Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Leader of the Scottish Conservative party Douglas Ross visit the Port of Nigg on May 23, 2024 in Inverness, Scotland. The Prime Minister is on a General Election campaign visit to Inverness area with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross. Yesterday, Sunak unexpectedly announced a UK general election for Thursday, 4 July. (Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - MAY 23: Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Leader of the Scottish Conservative party Douglas Ross visit the Port of Nigg on May 23, 2024 in Inverness, Scotland. The Prime Minister is on a General Election campaign visit to Inverness area with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross. Yesterday, Sunak unexpectedly announced a UK general election for Thursday, 4 July. (Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - MAY 23: Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Leader of the Scottish Conservative party Douglas Ross visit the Port of Nigg on May 23, 2024 in Inverness, Scotland. The Prime Minister is on a General Election campaign visit to Inverness area with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross. Yesterday, Sunak unexpectedly announced a UK general election for Thursday, 4 July. (Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Firstly, he has his own track record from his period in office both as Chancellor and Prime Minister. Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that living standards have suffered in recent years, that has not been a situation unique to the UK. All Western economies have struggled with the impact of Covid, coupled with the huge shock rise in energy costs and resultant inflation caused by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

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Economy improving

We forget now the crucial interventions that were made during the pandemic in the provision of both the furlough scheme, and generous grants for businesses and communities, without which we would have seen a massive rise in unemployment and a spate of business failures.

Secondly, Sunak can point to recent data showing that the economic outlook is already improving. Last week we saw inflation fall to 2.3 per cent, very close to the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent, and presaging interest rate reductions. The International Monetary Fund has revised upwards UK economic growth figures, whilst employment rates remain high. Again, whilst all Western economies have struggled, the UK is faring better than many.

Thirdly, it remains the fact that there is little enthusiasm for Starmer as an alternative Prime Minister, and indeed serious questions remain unanswered as to what exactly a Labour government in power would do differently. There is no credible economic plan to speak of from the Opposition, and over the next few weeks we will see increased media scrutiny on Starmer’s team as to what exactly they have to offer, which will only benefit the Conservatives.

But if the polls are suggesting the loss of a large number of Conservative seats south of the Border, the position in Scotland is very different. Here the whipping boys in the election are going to be the SNP, not the Scottish Tories.

The latest Scotland-only poll from More in Common has Labour in the lead with 35 per cent, the SNP on 30 per cent, Conservatives on 17 per cent with the Liberal Democrats on ten per cent. Translated into seats this would give Labour 29, SNP 16, Conservatives seven and Liberal Democrats five.

Pro-UK tactical voting

In contrast with what has been projected for England, this poll actually has the Scottish Conservatives advancing in terms of number of seats. I suspect that it actually underestimates the opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives, given we are likely to see considerable regional variation in voting.

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We know from the results of recent council by-elections that, in the areas where the Conservatives are competitive against the SNP, we are seeing considerable increases in our vote, possibly driven by pro-UK tactical voting. If our vote is falling in parts of the Central Belt where we are not seen to be competitive, then it will be on the increase in areas such as the North-East, Tayside and the South of Scotland, where there are a range of SNP-Conservative marginals. That bodes well for us at this stage in the campaign.

Just as the issue of incumbency is proving a handicap for Sunak, so John Swinney is finding the same as the fourth SNP First Minister in 17 years. Hopes that he might have had a honeymoon as new SNP leader went up in smoke when he decided it was a clever tactic to stand by the disgraced former Health Secretary, Michael Matheson, following the decision by the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee to suspend him from Holyrood for an unprecedented 27-day period.

Horrified SNP MPs

I watched from the back of the Scottish Parliament Chamber last week flabbergasted at the First Minister’s defence of Matheson, who we know wrongly tried to claim an £11,000 bill for roaming charges from the taxpayer as a legitimate Parliamentary expense, when there was no justification for doing so. It was astonishing to see Swinney, particularly at the very start of a general election campaign, standing by someone he described as his friend, when the right thing to do would have been to tell Matheson to take his medicine.

For years, the SNP have tried to advance the cause of separatism by claiming some sort of moral superiority over conduct at Westminster. In the space of a few words, Swinney demolished that case entirely, and did unfathomable damage to the prospects for his party’s general election candidates. I can only imagine the horrified looks on the faces of his MPs, already nervous looking at the Scottish polling, when they saw the stance he was taking.

It might be too early to make definitive predictions for the outcome of this general election, but one thing is clear at this stage: just like the FA and Scottish cup finals, this is going to play out very differently in Scotland to what we are seeing south of the Border.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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