Predictions of a Scottish Tory wipeout in the general election will prove unfounded, but Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could ironically end up stopping the UK from leaving the EU, writes Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser.
With Parliament having been dissolved last night, the General Election campaign is now fully under way. Party activists will be pounding the streets in the five weeks between now and December 12, hoping to persuade voters who are probably going to be more interested in their Christmas preparations than turning their thoughts to politics.
Already the battle lines have been drawn. The campaign south of the Border will be dominated by two issues: Brexit and who should be the next Prime Minister. The Conservative message on both these is strong and clear: firstly, vote Conservative to get Brexit sorted, get the deal that Boris Johnson negotiated with the EU27 through Parliament to allow us to leave the EU and move into a transition period, and then negotiate a future relationship with the EU in our economic interests. Against this, the Labour opposition is still confused, offering a second EU referendum, but without any clarity on how the party would campaign in the event that that was granted.
On the question of who should be the next Prime Minister, the polling is stark: there is an enormous gap between the approval rating for Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The latter is seen not just as holding extreme left-wing views, but as weak and unreliable, and if the election is framed around that question then there can be little doubt as to the outcome.
A crucial element in determining the election outcome will be the role played by the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage seems determined to run candidates in the large majority of seats across the country. If he does, the Brexit Party are unlikely to be rewarded with many, if any, MPs after December 12.
Rather, the best they can hope for is to split the pro-Leave vote, making it less likely that Conservative MPs will be elected in marginal seats, with the result making Brexit less certain.
It would be a remarkable epitaph for Mr Farage’s political career if he were to be the man who stopped Brexit happening at all.
In Scotland, the focus for the campaign is already different from that happening elsewhere in the UK. Here, the main issue will be whether there should be a second independence referendum, or at least that is the way the election is being framed by Nicola Sturgeon.
And that approach is likely to lead to extensive tactical voting amongst pro-Union members of the public, who simply do not want us to embark upon yet another divisive constitutional referendum.
The Scottish Conservatives have a clear message on this, and one that has been confirmed by Boris Johnson as Prime Minister: we will not support a second independence referendum.
In contrast, Labour have now opened the door to allowing a second indyref, no doubt as part of a future deal with the SNP to prop them up in government. Senior Labour figures, including most recently the Shadow Business Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, have advised that Labour “wouldn’t stand in the way” of a push for a second referendum.
It is little wonder that the polling suggests that Labour will be lucky to hold on to any more than just one of the current seats they have in Scotland.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats have tried to present a united message on the Union question, there are very few seats where they are the challengers to the SNP and might therefore make gains.
It remains to be seen whether Brexit-supporting Tories in constituencies like North-East Fife are prepared to lend their votes to a Lib Dem candidate, if those votes will then be taken as support for reversing the result of the 2016 EU referendum.
In many SNP seats across Scotland, it is the Scottish Conservatives who are the challengers, and who stand to benefit most from pro-Union tactical voting. That was what helped us so much in 2017, when we saw 12 additional Scottish Conservatives MPs elected, and elected (we should remember) on a clear manifesto commitment to deliver Brexit.
Whilst some of those 2017 voters might have personal reservations about Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, they will still vote for the Scottish Conservatives when the alternative is an SNP MP supporting Sturgeon’s push for another referendum.
So far from us looking at losing seats in the General Election, we are targeting gains. In a seat like Lanark and Hamilton East, we are just 266 votes behind the SNP, with an excellent, energetic candidate in Shona Haslam. With Labour in third place, there will be a healthy number of Labour unionists who will now realise that the only way to stop the SNP in that seat is to give the Conservatives a tactical vote, and it is an area where I fully expect to see a Conservative gain on December 12.
Similarly, in Perth and North Perthshire we have another excellent local candidate in Cllr Angus Forbes, looking to overturn the incumbent SNP MP’s majority of a mere 21. It is little wonder there is a state of panic in the SNP camp following the announcement that there will be a Green party candidate in the seat, a well–liked, well-known former SNP councillor, Elspeth MacLachlan, whose presence on the ballot is likely to eat into the SNP vote.
So across Scotland the Scottish Conservatives are in good spirits, campaigning hard, and up for the fight. The canvassing we have done so far shows that our vote is firm and motivated, determined to use this opportunity to send a strong message to Nicola Sturgeon that Scotland doesn’t want another divisive independence referendum.
It is going to be a long five weeks in what could be difficult weather, but there is everything to play for, and every expectation of success.
Murdo Fraser is the Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife