Why Scottish Conservatives could split from UK party over response to Nigel Farage's Reform

Leadership contests for both the Scottish Conservatives and UK party could produce winners with markedly different attitudes towards Reform UK

A week before the election, I met up with some old pals from school days. We meet maybe twice a year for a few beers and talk the usual nonsense which no one can ever remember between rounds. As three of them are nationalists and the fourth a lifelong Labour man, politics is usually avoided.

My Labour chum and I have both agreed the group’s friendships are best preserved by not getting into pointless arguments about independence and I don’t rise to the occasional jibe about Tory Brexit or whatever, apart from asking if, like me, they had been involved with a Remain campaign. Albeit briefly, the silent rule was broken last week. “You still involved with that Tory pish?” asked one, to which I replied yes, but not nearly as much as when I’d been a councillor, and his response revealed much about last week’s election result.

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“I’ll always be a nationalist, but the SNP are f***ing useless,” he said. A small patch of common ground at last. His disillusion was clear, and he didn’t have an answer when I asked which party would get his vote and I suspect the answer was none, the same as thousands of voters in what was the lowest turnout, 60 per cent, since 2001.

Some Conservatives appear to view Nigel Farage as a potential ally with talk he could even be a future party leader (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Some Conservatives appear to view Nigel Farage as a potential ally with talk he could even be a future party leader (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Some Conservatives appear to view Nigel Farage as a potential ally with talk he could even be a future party leader (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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SNP blame game

The understatement of the immediate aftermath came from crestfallen SNP leader John Swinney on Friday when he conceded his party had “failed to convince people of the urgency of independence in this election campaign", but his analysis stopped short of acknowledging they had failed to convince enough independence believers like my friend, that the SNP could deliver it. Even the “we’ll always stand up for Scotland” line which persuaded so many voters to abandon Labour was not enough to save three-quarters of the Westminster group from the scaffold.

So, with no track record of competent government, diminishing confidence among the faithful in its ability to advance the cause, it’s legitimate to ask what purpose can the SNP serve? The smallest crumb of comfort would be from the conclusive rejection of Alex Salmond’s rebel Alba alternative which could muster only 11,000 votes across the whole country, not enough even to get close to winning one seat.

While not ignoring their own shortcomings, Nicola Sturgeon and some defeated SNP candidates, like former Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard, sought to pin some blame for their bad night on being caught up in the anti-Conservative mood for change, which sounded like a tacit confession that the independence cause relies on a Conservative Westminster government. But in going from six seats to five the Scottish Conservatives had a far better night as far as losses were concerned, and any anti-Tory sentiment was not strong enough to demolish the blue wall of Borders seats. If anything, it only compounded the SNP’s embarrassment.

It's all a far cry from 2015, when the SNP won 56 of 59 Scottish seats, and in her new role as election night pundit, Ms Sturgeon used her undeniably strong record to absolve herself of any responsibility for the unfolding debacle. Joanna Cherry blamed Ms Sturgeon, others blamed the Michael Matheson expenses scandal, but just as the SNP can’t excuse away a disastrous election as anything other than entirely their own fault, only in relative terms can the Scottish Conservatives claim a net loss of just one seat was a success.

Reform’s so-called patriots

Even against the national background, the destructive emergence of Reform candidates left many Tories in what until recently had been relatively fertile ground relieved to have saved their deposits. And as predicted here last week, Reform’s so-called patriots were responsible for handing the SNP at least two constituencies, without which the SNP and Conservatives would have finished with seven seats each.

There is no question that strong leadership is the key to any revival, but the SNP is stuck with Mr Swinney. The Scottish Conservatives now face the prospect of simultaneous contests, and uncertainty about the direction of the UK leadership means understanding the full context for the Scottish contest is virtually impossible. What happens if the UK party backs a leader who wants to open talks with Nigel Farage, but the victor in Scotland has been elected on a “no appeasement” platform?

Every policy area has the potential for contradictions and conflicts because the eventual positions are unknown. Under normal circumstances, it would be unthinkable to run both at once, so there could be the prospect of delaying the Scottish leadership until the UK leader is elected. But that would mean Douglas Ross staying in position despite the fury amongst MSPs about his last-minute grab of the Aberdeenshire North and Moray East candidacy, where over 5,000 Reform voters handed the seat to the SNP. Ideally, a new Scottish leader would be in place for the start of the new Scottish Parliamentary session in September, so maybe the least-worst option is to carry on and hope both outcomes are aligned.

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Sarwar’s steady course to power

Anonymous briefings suggest one Scottish leadership faction will be campaigning for a partial split from the UK party and, interestingly, a clear-out of senior headquarters staff responsible for running the election process. After such a sobering election, nothing should be off limits, but internal structures and personalities are of no interest to the public, and the Scottish contest needs an honest analysis of how a genuinely right-of-centre party remains competitive. Now that “Say No to Indyref 2” is history, what matters are voters’ top priorities and how to reflect them.

With so much turmoil, the same steady course steered by Sir Keir Starmer will surely lead Anas Sarwar to Bute House. But two years is a long time for a government with a huge majority and no excuse for inaction to avoid scaring any horses. Interesting times indeed, but the next time I see the boys, we’ll still avoid politics. Franco Smith for the Scotland rugby job? Now there’s a talking point.

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