Brian Monteith: How Tories could become Scotland's biggest party

In the two years that have passed since the independence referendum the subject of most discussion has been to consider if and when that fight will be rerun and what would happen the next time.

Ruth Davidson is in poll position, says Brian Monteith. Picture: jane Barlow

But what if it is not rerun, as seems increasingly likely? What if Nicola Sturgeon’s moons do not quite align and the circumstances never seem quite propitious enough? Surely we should be considering what will become of our political parties, how they will fare and what it will mean for each of us, our nation and our wider country that is the UK?

Recently I wrote about why I thought there is every likelihood that we have passed Peak SNP and thus Peak Nationalism, and for that to change the SNP will have to reinvent itself before daring to instigate another referendum. In the reaction to that piece and the conversation I have had with my fellow Scots during the intervening weeks my view has not changed on this, if anything it has been hardened. What then of the other parties, can they take advantage of a possible decline in support for the SNP?

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I should state that a fall in support for the SNP need not necessarily mean a loss of power. The SNP can afford to lose a good deal of votes before it comes second at Holyrood, and anyhow, which party would be able to overtake it?

In the past one would have expected the threat to the SNP to be the Labour Party but that prospect now seems a long way off. The last two years have been disastrous for Scottish Labour. Predictably, the SNP was able to turn much of the anger and disappointment from Yes supporters into a rejection of Scottish Labour and it has paid a dear price. It is now on its third leader since the referendum and lost all but one of its MPs in the general election.

A similar mauling came in the Holyrood elections with it falling into third place behind the Scottish Conservatives with only three constituency seats won, compared to four by the Liberal Democrats and seven by the Tories. Labour’s regional list vote saved it from further embarrassment giving it a total of 24 seats to the 31 Tories, a parlous state unimaginable ten years ago.

Now, there is every prospect that the current Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale will be another casualty as she called for the resignation of national leader Jeremy Corbyn when she backed his challenger, Owen Smith, who is expected to lose heavily. Even if she survives to lead the party into the local council elections next May the prospect of a poor result then would surely finish off her reign. The road to recovery for Labour looks very long indeed and is to a great extent dependent on how bad a job the SNP makes of governing Scotland. Even if Prime Minister Theresa May becomes an unpopular figure (and at the moment her approval ratings at 16 per cent are better than Nicola Sturgeon’s at 14 per cent) any disenchantment with the Conservative government is likely to go to the SNP so long as Labour does not look credible in Westminster.

That leaves the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson (also ahead of Sturgeon with approval ratings of 31 per cent) in poll position to mount a challenge to the SNP. Unfortunately for Davidson her job does not get any easier as there remains the difficulty of how she can get into government in Scotland. If she manages to grow support for her Scottish Conservative group and increases its number at the next Holyrood election in four years time who would want to go into coalition with the Conservatives? No-one, not the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Lib Dems or Greens could surely afford to go into a formal coalition with the Conservatives so the best Davidson can expect is to lead the Tories to become the largest party and rule as a minority administration on a confidence and supply basis.

For the Conservatives to overtake the SNP requires more than having a popular leader and being the best unionist party at mounting a robust opposition to the SNP – it also requires Davidson to craft a platform that attracts widespread support based on attractive policies. She needs to establish common ground on bread and butter issues to do with health, education, transport, housing – and probably most importantly, local government. The opportunity presented by the devolution of further powers of government responsibilities from Westminster to Holyrood and the financial measures that go with that could begin to ensnare the SNP, as it appears devoid of ideas, while allowing the Tories to be creative and inventive.

Were the SNP to see its number decline, with a small transfer of support back to Labour but also a drift towards the Greens, then such a scenario is not impossible, but it does require guile. It particularly requires number crunching that could deliver an alternative budget that would show the Tories as a credible administration-in-waiting while killing fears about Tory cuts. Davidson’s pragmatic approach in seeking to make Brexit work for Scotland shows she is alive to the possibilities of winning people round by sheer hard work and establishing a realistic common-sense approach.

Where then will our political parties be in another two years? By then we should know the what Brexit really means for Scotland and be witnessing a fall in support for the SNP if it does not deliver its referendum. Could Davidson’s Tories yet become the party most likely to serve Scotland’s interests best?

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland