The Scottish Conservatives: Facing Cold Winds From The South?

Last year Scots Tories had to abandon their annual conference thanks to the ‘Beast from the East’. This year it is political winds from the south that are blowing cold for the party as it gathers this weekend in Aberdeen.

In similar vein to the pattern in England and Wales, much of the advance achieved by the party in the 2017 UK election rested on its success in winning over Leave voters – despite the prominent role that the party’s leader, Ruth Davidson, played in the Remain campaign. According to the British Election Study, the party won as much as 46% of the vote among those in Scotland who voted Leave (representing an increase of 22 points on 2015), whereas it secured just 18% among those who backed Remain (a rise of six points).

It should thus come as little surprise that the sharp decline in Conservative support that has been evident south of the border in the wake of the UK government’s failure to deliver Brexit has also been echoed north of the border. Three polls of Westminster support for the party conducted since Easter have, on average, put overall support for the party, at 22%, five points down on where it was last autumn – before the UK government found itself caught in the quagmire of a Brexit deal that has been repeatedly rejected by MPs – and seven points adrift of the party’s performance in the 2017 election. The party’s Holyrood rating has also slipped somewhat.

As south of the border, this loss of support has occurred disproportionately among those who voted Leave. Although support for the party among Remain voters has, at 15% (on average), eased slightly as compared with position at the time of the general election, at 36% the party’s popularity among Leave voters is now ten points adrift of where it was in 2017.

Meanwhile, in line with the position elsewhere the party also faces the prospect of a severe mauling in the European election. Both the two polls published so far of vote intentions for that election in Scotland suggest that many of those who would still vote for the party in a Westminster or Holyrood contest will step back from doing so on May 23. One put support for the party at 16%, while the other put it as low as 10%. These readings suggest the party is at risk of falling below its previous record low in a European election, 14.5% in 1994. Again, it is Leave voters, attracted by Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party’s argument that Britain should leave without a deal, who are particularly likely to abandon the party.

A reversal of the party’s fortunes on anything like this scale would raise questions about the durability of the revival of the party that was heralded by its advance in the 2016 Holyrood election and the 2017 UK election. It could also serve to undermine the party’s authority as it continues to present itself as the arch-defender of the Union and opponent of holding a second independence referendum – and just at a time when two polls last weekend suggested that (after leaving aside those who say, ‘Don’t Know’)support for independence may now be not far short of the 50% mark.

Of course, the party still has a considerable asset in the form of its leader, Ruth Davidson, who returned from maternity leave just earlier this week. YouGov reported last weekend that those who think she is performing well (42%) continue to outnumber those who believe she is doing so badly (32%). Her resulting net rating of +10 outshines that of every other party leader north of the border, including Nicola Sturgeon.

However, just as Ms Davidson’s personal commitment to the Remain cause did little to dent her party’s ability to win over Leave voters in 2017, so now it looks as though her personal popularity is insufficient to stop her party losing ground as a result of the Brexit impasse at Westminster. Voters are apparently inclined to judge a party of the Union not simply on the basis of its performance in Scotland but also on how well it is thought to be exercising its stewardship of that Union – but, then, presumably Ruth Davidson would not have it any other way?


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.