Holyrood 2016: Could the Tories become Scotland's second party?

No Holyrood election would be complete without talk of a revival for the Conservatives north of the border, but how realistic is the prospect of the party overtaking Labour for second place?

The Scottish Conservatives are hoping to leapfrog Labour in the May election. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Scottish Conservatives are hoping to leapfrog Labour in the May election. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Several polls suggesting the Tories could be within a hair’s breadth of Kezia Dugdale’s party in the constituency vote have sent speculation into overdrive, with one survey last month putting the parties neck-and-neck on 19 per cent.

The idea the Tories are a “toxic” brand has become so ingrained in Scotland it is easy to forget that the party and its predecessors once commanded wide support north of the border.

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The Unionist Party - later to merge with the Conservative Party of England and Wales to form the modern Scottish Conservative Party in 1965 - famously won a majority of the Scottish vote in the 1955 general election, and gained the most votes in Scotland again in 1959, although fewer seats than Labour.

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From these heights, historian Tom Devine has attributed the party’s subsequent fall in support to a decline in former sectarian voting patterns in Scotland coupled with the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s.

The party’s performance reached a nadir in the 1997 general election when the Tories lost all of their Scottish MPs.

It is ironic that it took the creation of the Scottish Parliament, opposed by the Conservatives, to restore electoral credibility to the party north of the border.

At Holyrood, it has maintained a steady third place since 1999, returning 18 MSPs in the first two sessions of the parliament, before dropping to 17 in 2007. In the seismic election of 2011, the Scottish Conservatives fared only slightly better than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, losing just two seats.

But Ruth Davidson, when she took on the role of leader just months later, still faced the reality of the party’s poorest performance in a Holyrood election. Some commentators point to last year’s general election result as a sign of limited progress in restoring the party’s fortunes since then.

The Conservatives recorded their lowest share of the vote in a general election in Scotland in more than 150 years, at just 14.9 per cent.

The party can take comfort from recent polling, which puts constituency support at 16 per cent - nearing the 17 per cent support the party enjoyed in 2003 and 2007 - and regional backing at 18 per cent, level with Labour.

While a more likely outcome may be a return to the Scottish Conservatives’ former strength at Holyrood, there is little doubt that Labour’s electoral freefall has given Ruth Davidson’s party the best chance yet of making the dream of second place a reality.