Facing More Difficult Circumstances? Prospects for the Scottish Conservatives

At first glance the Scottish Conservatives, who are meeting in virtual conference this weekend, can look forward to next year’s Scottish Parliament election with a fair degree of confidence.

In polls conducted since September, the party has averaged 20% on the constituency vote and 19% on the regional vote. That is somewhat down on the party’s performance at the last Holyrood election in 2016 (when it secured 22% on the constituency vote and 23% on the regional vote), but only by a margin that it might reasonably hope to make up, while the party is still ahead of Labour in the battle for second place. After all, if we look at the party’s position in the polls at this point five years ago, it stood at just 15% on both the constituency and regional vote – and was still trailing Labour by as much as seven points. Why should it not anticipate being able to make similar progress between now and next spring?

However, there are three crucial differences between the position in which the party finds itself now and the circumstances in which it made a significant advance five years ago.

The first is leadership. The party’s new leader, Douglas Ross, is yet to make much impact either way on the electorate.  Last month as many as 40% of voters told Ipsos MORI that they did not know whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with his performance. Meanwhile, the balance of opinion among those who do feel able to express a view is negative – only 22% say they are satisfied, while 39% state that they are dissatisfied.

Compare that with the profile of the party’s leader five years ago, Ruth Davidson. She was already a well kent face, having been in post for nearly all of the 2011-16 parliamentary session. Meanwhile, despite the fact she was leader of a relatively unpopular party, in November 2015 47% said they were satisfied with her leadership, while only 33% were dissatisfied.

Doubtless, Mr Ross is hoping that Ms Davidson, who is currently deputising for him at Holyrood, will play a prominent role in next year’s Scottish Parliament election, after which she will head for the Lords. But this is unlikely to be an adequate substitute for having a leader with a demonstrable ability to command the respect and attention of those who do not regard themselves as members of the Tory faithful.

Meanwhile, there is the problem of the low regard with which the party’s UK leader, Boris Johnson, is held north of the border. Only 19% told Ipsos MORI last month that they were satisfied with how Mr Johnson is doing his job as Prime Minister, while a similarly low proportion, 20%, indicated to YouGov a couple of weeks ago that they felt he was doing his job well. True, David Cameron, the tenant of 10 Downing St five years ago, was not particularly popular either – only 30% were satisfied with his leadership in the autumn of 2015 and only 32% believed he was performing well. However, there would appear to be a risk that the current Prime Minister will prove significantly more of a hindrance to his party’s attempts to win over voters than Mr Cameron ever proved to be – and perhaps particularly so given voters’ largely negative evaluation of Mr Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, an experience that is still likely to be in voters’ minds next May.

The second obstacle facing the Scottish Conservatives is Brexit. Difficult though it may now be to remember, the last Scottish Parliament election was held some weeks before the EU referendum that led to the decision to leave the EU. Both the party’s UK and its Scottish leader were campaigning in favour of remaining in the EU – whereas now the Conservatives are led at UK level by the man who, above all, campaigned for and secured the delivery of Brexit.

As we have noted before, the pursuit of Brexit by the Conservatives has resulted in an increasing reliance on the support of those who voted Leave – in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK. This is evident in recent polls, which on average show that the party is supported by just 13% of those who voted Remain in 2016, but by 39% of those who voted Leave. In contrast, at the last Holyrood election (according to the British Election Study) the party’s tally among those who subsequently went on to vote Leave was just 29%, while it enjoyed the backing of 17% of those who voted Remain.

Trouble is, while winning over Leave voters proved to be an effective strategy for the party in England and Wales in last year’s UK general election, the relatively low level of support for Brexit north of the border means that the party finds itself appealing to a relatively small niche market.

Finally, there is the constitutional question. Although the Conservatives have tried to persuade voters to focus on other issues, such as the SNP on its record in office, and leave aside their views on the independence question, in practice the Conservatives are almost wholly unable to secure the support of those who back independence. According to this autumn’s polls, the party has the support of nearly half (48%) of those who currently oppose independence, but just 1% of those who are in favour. However, whereas five years ago, remaining part of the UK was still the majority view, now this autumn’s polls have on average put support for staying in the Union at 46%. Rather than asking voters to consider how well the SNP have done the ‘day job’, the party might be better off accepting the likely importance of the constitutional debate in influencing how people will vote next May – and argue the case for the Union.

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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.