Election 2017: Could Angus Robertson’s seat be the SNP’s ‘Portillo moment’?

Moray MP Angus Robertson with Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty Images
Moray MP Angus Robertson with Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Getty Images
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The Portillo moment. Every election journalists and activists leave a special place in their diary for potential re-runs of the night when then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo lost his formerly safe Tory seat in 1997.

That New Labour landslide claimed a number of scalps, but it was the shocking and dramatic nature of Portillo’s defenestration that made it all the more memorable.

Tory MSP Douglas Ross

Tory MSP Douglas Ross

There have been no shortage of similar moments in subsequent elections, and the most recent vote in 2015 was no exception.

Labour’s Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander, and the Lib Dem finance gurus Danny Alexander and Vince Cable, all lost their seats despite decent majorities and a huge national profile.

With the Tories and the Lib Dems targeting SNP seats up and down the country, we look at why one constituency in the North East could provide that popcorn moment just like Michael Portillo did 20 years ago.

The SNP big hitter

It is interesting, considering that he only stood for elected high office last year, that Angus Robertson has been thought of as being at the top of the party for well over a decade.

As a seasoned election planner, he was reckoned one of the main brains behind the SNP’s groundbreaking victory in the 2007 Holyrood elections.

Mr Robertson, who speaks several languages and was born in south London, has been reckoned by many commentators ‘the real leader of the opposition’.

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His thoughtful, pointed, and well researched questions have had Theresa May on the ropes at Prime Minister’s Questions far more often than Jeremy Corbyn has managed.

Perhaps it is that, as much as the favourable constituency demographics, that has led to Mr Robertson being so high up the Scottish Conservatives target list.

Popular at Westminster and in his party (winning well over 50 per cent in the recent depute leader election), the former journalist has been an MP now for over 16 years.

He will hope he is also popular enough locally to hold on to his seat, which he won in 2015 with an increased majority of just over 9,000.

The constituency

That majority in traditional elections should be insurmountable, and this area has been solidly SNP for the best part of 30 years.

But the area was also a solidly no voting constituency in the referendum of 2014, and that has the Conservatives thinking their anti-independence message could cut through.

Ruth Davidson’s party significantly cut into the majority of former Government minister Richard Lochhead at the equivalent Holyrood Seat last year, with a swing of nearly 15 per cent away from the SNP.

While every council area in Scotland voted Remain in the Brexit referendum of 2016, Moray came closest to backing the exit from the European Union.

49.9 per cent of voters in Angus Robertson’s constituency voted to leave the EU, over 10 per cent higher then the figure for the whole of Scotland.

The challenger

Douglas Ross, like 50.1 per cent of those he hopes are his future constituents, backed a remain vote in that referendum.

The Tory MSP is planning a third stab at dethroning Angus Robertson, after failing to come close in either 2010 or 2015.

Mr Ross also stood in the equivalent Scottish Parliament seat last year, and came closer than many expected to winning, before being elected on the party list.

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He is bullish about his chances, penning in his local paper “Angus, we are coming for you”, putting Mr Robertson on notice that he would challenge him again.

But despite that bullishness, there is no denying that Mr Ross faces an uphill struggle to defeat one of Scotland’s most recognisable MPs.

Had he been a Leave voter, he could have perhaps galvanised Brexiteers in all parties (including some SNP Brexit backers) to send him to Westminster.

There’s also possibility that while he came close to defeating Richard Lochhead, he didn’t actually win the seat, so he has arguably reached his peak.

The MSP and former Councillor hasn’t had his problems to seek as an SFA referee and linesman.

That might make for good puns and colour in profiles, but when that duty interferes with his parliamentary duties, as has happened in the past, it can cause controversy.

“How many jobs does he want?” was the SNP response.

If they can make that line stick, then the Tories could be deprived their Portillo moment.