Can the Scottish Conservatives win the 2021 election?

Not for the first time in the last 18 months or so, the Scottish Conservatives are seemingly a party with their tails up.

Ruth Davidson.
Ruth Davidson.

While the damage (if any) from an embarrassing admission that Scottish-relevant sections of the Brexit withdrawal bill won’t be amended in the House of Commons remains to be seen, a poll released today has the party in buoyant mood.

The party hasn’t lost support at a Westminster level since the same poll in October, though they would lose two seats if a snap general election was called today.

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In a Holyrood election, Ruth Davidson’s party has gained support, and would pick up an additional two seats in an election to the Scottish Parliament.

While they remain significantly behind the SNP in terms of seats, the party remains bullish that they can defeat Nicola Sturgeon and become the largest party at Holyrood, setting Ruth Davidson up as the first Tory First Minister in the parliament’s young history.

We look at how feasible that outcome is.

Starting position

As good as the poll is for the Conservatives, it would be tempting to look at the gap between the party and the SNP and conclude that the short answer to our question is ‘not a chance’.

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However, the party is trending upwards in terms of recent polling, and that is a far better path to be on than going in the opposite direction.

A Holyrood election is still more than three years away, and coming from far back to win a Scottish Parliament election is not without precedent. A lot can change in that time, but even if the leaders remain the same, and the issues on the agenda remain similar (the constitution, the NHS, education), Ruth Davidson’s party could still come from behind to win.

The SNP won the 2007 election by a single seat, but it was only in the final year or so of that parliamentary term that they established a lead in polls.

In early 2005, a poll showed that the SNP were 20 points behind Labour in the constituency vote, and 11 points behind in the regional vote.

In contrast, Ruth Davidson’s party are 13 points behind the SNP in the constituency vote, and just seven points behind in the regional vote.

Potential for growth

Ms Davidson’s party are keen to brief to journalists that they are developing a more muscular policy platform they believe will allow them to be taken seriously as an alternative government, and not just the anti-independence party.

However, there remains every chance that independence will remain on the agenda until 2021 and beyond.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she will make her final decision on another independence referendum (if there is going to be one) by the end of the year.

If a referendum is held after 2018, but before 2021’s election, a defeat could leave the SNP demoralised, rudderless, and possibly even at war with itself before the election.

The state of Scotland’s constitutional future could be as much a factor in the success of the Scottish Conservatives than their policy offering.

The case against

This all could seem like too much of a stretch, and that’s a fair observation.

The SNP, by all polling, is still well ahead in both Westminster and Holyrood, with their majority government of 2007-11 now seen as something of an abberation.

Minority or coalition government was always designed to be the norm in the Scottish Parliament, and it looks set to continue whoever wins in 2021.

Ms Sturgeon will remain confident that she can put together a coalition of voters to leave her party with enough support to form a government.

They remain under pressure from both left and right, and the SNP, arguably one of the most successful centrist projects in modern British politics, could struggle to hold on to power if those pressures, as well as continued constitutional turmoil, continue.

Going from a party of opposition to one of Government was a long road for the SNP, and it is arguably even longer for Scottish Conservatives.

Ruth Davidson says her dream is to become First Minister, and while polling for her party is good, there remain significant hurdles in her way.