The Tory revival in Scotland — where next?

The Conservatives won 13 seats in Scotland at the general election

Their successful showing in June confirmed the re-emergence of the Scottish Conservatives as an electoral force. The key question now is whether and how much further their support can grow.

Any discussion about the relative fortunes of political parties in Scotland usually centres around speculation about peaks and floors.

For years we obsessed about how low support for Scottish Labour could go, revising it downwards as each election ate away a further chunk of their vote. In 2016 we were preoccupied about whether we had already witnessed ‘peak SNP’, and if the loss of the party’s overall majority at Holyrood was the first signal of a longer-term decline.

The 2017 version of this brand of political speculation centres around the Scottish Conservatives. Long written off as a toxic brand, the 2017 general election result confirmed the re-emergence of the party as an electoral force, first detected when the party came second in last year’s Holyrood vote.

In the context of recent elections where the party’s representation at Westminster was ridiculed as being fewer than the number of pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, the party did extraordinarily well in June; its vote share almost doubled to 28.6%, it won 12 new seats and, crucially, was instrumental in the Tories clinging on to power.

Further analysis of the results shows that the party could have done even better. In addition to their 13 seats, they came second to the SNP in a further nine seats, five of which they would have taken with a swing of a further 664 votes or fewer. And in five of the six additional seats that Scottish Labour won, it was the significant swing to the Tories that allowed Labour to come through the middle and win.

The key question now is where is ‘peak Scottish Tory’ and does the party have a chance of forming the next Scottish government in 2021?

There are two points to bear in mind here; how much of the new support for the Scottish Conservatives was the result of tactical voting and may therefore not be permanent, and what is the scope for the party improving their performance in the future?

Helpfully, there is some evidence in recent polling data which may give us some clues.

A recent YouGov poll gives some hints about the motivations of voters in making their choice. The Scottish subsample is quite small but shows something markedly different from the rest of the country in terms of why people voted Conservative.

It suggests that, in Scotland, just over a third (35%) of those who backed the Tories did so as a tactical vote, presumably in most part to voice opposition to a second independence referendum. Indeed, tactical voting was the single most popular reason, ahead of the 22% who voted Conservative because of Brexit and the 12% who did so primarily because they supported the party’s policies and proposals. Crucially, the figure for tactical voting for the Conservatives across Britain was just 4%, indicating that tactical voting for the Tories in Scotland was around 9-times the rate in the rest of the country.

But while that data may point to a strong reliance on tactical voting that may not represent a more permanent switch to the Scottish Tories, other polling evidence suggests that there is potentially more support for the party to harvest.

In a pre-election poll, Ipsos MORI asked respondents whether, for each party, they were their preferred choice, would consider voting for them or whether they would never consider voting for them. The results for the Scottish Conservatives suggest that they are the preferred party for around one in five Scots (19%) with a further 16% saying that they would consider voting for them, suggesting a potential support in the mid 30’s, around 7 points higher than the party received in June.

The fact that 60% say that they would never consider voting for the Scottish Conservatives suggests, however, that the party will find it difficult to get much higher than the mid-30s, at least as things currently stand.

When we look more closely at that additional potential support, it is clear that it is most likely to come from Liberal Democrat and Labour voters, among whose supporters, 41% and 18% respectively said that they would consider voting Conservative, compared to just 9% of SNP supporters.

So, while acknowledging the significant progress made by the current leadership in bringing the Tories back from electoral oblivion, where does all this leave the party as it considers the potential for future progress?

Firstly, if support for the party were to grow to the mid-30s then the Scottish Conservatives become contenders for government in 2021; two of the five Holyrood elections held since 1999 have been won by parties with a constituency vote share of 35% or less, even if these governments were run in coalition or on a minority basis. If the current trajectory in support for the party continues then this becomes a realistic proposition.

However, current polling and challenges faced by the party suggests some caution. A significant slice of the extra support gained by the Scottish Conservatives this year would appear to come from tactical voting and may not represent the long-term building of support the party needs to contend for power. And if the possibility of a second independence referendum lessens, then the reasons for that tactical switch may lessen with it.

And there are numerous other challenges and potential pitfalls ahead, including the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the success of the 12 new Tory MPs from Scotland in being seen to fight Scotland’s corner and not just acting to keep the UK Government in power, and the ongoing prospect of another general election in the next couple of years.

Things look good for the Scottish Conservatives and the potential for growth in support is there — capturing that support will be an altogether more difficult task.