One of Willie Rennie’s lesser known talents is that he’s a pretty good hill runner, doing well on steep slopes, picking his path through obstacles.
That determination, energy and focus was put to good use in the impressive constituency wins he and his new colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton scored in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western. Not only did they win, but they took seats off the ascendant SNP, with comfortable majorities.
In Orkney and Shetland the incumbent Liberal Democrats Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott secured huge swings against the SNP to win two-thirds of votes.
Those considerable successes were rendered bittersweet by the Greens securing one seat more than the Liberal Democrats overall and the disappointment that Alison McInnes and Jim Hume, who both achieved notable successes in the last parliament, are no longer MSPs.
Willie should not be downhearted though. He has ended the Liberal Democrats’ decline. Overall the party’s share of the vote and number of seats are the same as 2011, a real success when compared to their dire results in the 2015 general election. Privately, Willie always had a two-election strategy. This year was about rehabilitation, making the party acceptable to voters again, rebuilding in areas of traditional strength and developing his own reputation and credibility. He has done all of that in his own distinctive, enthusiastic style.
In 2021 the Liberal Democrats will be aiming to secure more MSPs, looking both to former liberal heartlands like the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to winning back list seats in the Borders and Glasgow. By then, a second independence referendum will either have happened, which seems unlikely, or receded considerably in political relevance. Strategically, Willie will need to work out how to win back voters from the SNP, the Greens and the Tories.
In that task Willie will have an advantage he didn’t possess in the last parliament. Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she will lead a minority government will force the SNP to seek support from other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. Many assume the Greens will be their allies, but they have moved to the hard left, uncomfortable territory for the SNP.
On Thursday, Willie was confirmed as the leader the Liberal Democrats needed. He achieved all that could have been expected and more. And he has laid the foundations for substantial advances in 2021.
• Sam Ghibaldan is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser