Why Scotland needs an early general election and could lead the Conservative party's revival – John McLellan

Rishi Sunak may be on the point of acknowledging that economic progress is too slow to provide any kind of pre-election feelgood bounce for the Tories and stopping the boats is the impossibility it always was

When even the Prime Minster is talking about a hung parliament after the next general election, the most optimistic Conservative diehard must surely accept the game in Westminster is up. Yes, there is still governing to do and minsters are going through the motions, like Culture and Media Secretary Lucy Frazer who gave a well-received speech about the importance of a free Press to the annual Society of Editors’ conference last Tuesday. After last week’s English council election carnage, it could be the last time she addresses a large media audience in a government capacity.

Maybe the Conservative administration will stumble on through the summer and Ms Frazer will be in Edinburgh for August’s Television Festival, but the rumour mill was whirring over the weekend that Rishi Sunak is on the point of announcing a general election in June, acknowledging that progress on the economy is too little and too slow to provide any kind of feelgood bounce, and that stopping the boats is the impossibility it always was.

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It seems pointless to prolong the agony after virtually accepting defeat, but we’ll know soon enough because the rules dictate the dissolution of parliament must be announced tomorrow for an June 13 election, and there’s only a fortnight left to call an election before the holiday season starts in earnest. UK ministers, like Transport Secretary Mark Harper, were doing the weekend media rounds to argue there was still work to do, but it’s very, very hard to conceive of anything which will meaningfully alter the public mood between now and the beginning of September, when parliament must be dissolved to hold an October election.

Will Rishi Sunak call a snap election in June or hang on until later this year? (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)Will Rishi Sunak call a snap election in June or hang on until later this year? (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Will Rishi Sunak call a snap election in June or hang on until later this year? (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
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No Tory wipe-out

If all the action was in Edinburgh this time last week with the end of Humza Yousaf’s chaotic tenure, London feels like the place to be this week, which is just as well as senior Scottish news publishing figures are heading down for the annual Newsbrands Scotland (the trade association of which I’m director) Commons reception for MPs. We’re expecting a decent turnout for such a networking event, not least because if the latest polling from Norstat (formerly Panelbase) for the Sunday Times is borne out on election day, then quite a few will be looking for new jobs.

It predicts the SNP will fall from 43 seats to 15, while Labour will shoot up from two to 28. Give or take a seat or two that’s pretty much where the polls have been sitting for months, and the replacement of hapless Humza with steady but unspectacular John Swinney is unlikely to make much difference.

But after last week’s council and mayoral drubbings in the south, many voters might find the estimated Scottish Conservative return surprising. Rather than the wipe-out for which Mr Yousaf was hoping, 16 per cent of the vote could return nine Scottish Conservative MPs, up from six, because of regional variations in party strengths. It’s been clear for some time that Scottish Labour’s weakness in the North East and rural areas, both on policy and numbers of activists, would keep Conservatives as the main opposition to the SNP, and the past week’s events in Scotland lend even more weight to the argument for going to the country now than waiting until autumn.

Divisive social policies

The SNP has had the mother of all political nightmares over the past 18 months and is in no fit state to fight an election, and if I was Scotland Secretary Alister Jack I’d be arguing very hard in Cabinet for an election as soon as possible before Mr Swinney has time to settle into the new job, and for whatever influence Kate Forbes might have to begin sinking into public consciousness.

The new SNP leadership can’t throw the whole baby out with the bathwater of expensive anti-growth measures and divisive social policies demanded by the Greens because so many of their Central Belt MSPs are equally enthusiastic supporters of the programme − as are most of the Labour group − so calling an election now when the SNP is still trying to sort out the mess left by Mr Yousaf makes sense.

There was a lot talk recently about whether Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross had made a strategic error by calling for the vote of no confidence in Mr Yousaf and precipitating his replacement by someone more competent (or less incompetent, depending on your perspective) but that depends on what kind of administration Mr Swinney leads.

Cass Review debate

It’s true no one a fortnight ago was speculating about a Swinney leadership bid, given he’d said it was time to take a back seat when Nicola Sturgeon resigned, but as Mr Sunak has discovered it takes more than a change of face to wipe months of mayhem from public consciousness. It didn’t take Mr Swinney long to be tied up by his unwillingness to answer whether he believed a “trans woman is a woman”, weaselling out of the question on Thursday with flannel about it not addressing “core issues”.

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Three leaders caught on the same hook doesn’t suggest the SNP reset is about to happen overnight, and tomorrow’s Conservative-led debate about the implementation of the Cass Review into gender care services will expose just how little has changed. After the chaotic implementation of the Hate Crime Act, similar confusion is likely to engulf the proposed ban on sexual-orientation or gender-identity conversion therapies, now in the final stages of consultation before legislation is tabled this year.

Ben Houchen’s re-election as Teesside mayor was the one bright spot for Conservatives in a gloomy weekend, and when the election is called the Scottish Conservatives can provide a glimmer of hope in what will almost certainly be a very bad night, not dissimilar to 2017. Who’d have thought Conservative reconstruction could start in Scotland? Maybe that’s pushing it, and much rebuilding is needed here before the 2026 Scottish elections, but it’s got to start somewhere and now is as good a time as any.



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