Can The Scottish Conservatives Escape Boris Johnson’s Shadow?

It has not been an easy winter for the Scottish Conservatives, whose conference takes place in Aberdeen today and tomorrow. The spring might not prove any easier either.

The party reacted nervously to the ‘partygate’ row that engulfed the Prime Minister before and after Christmas. Most immediately it led to a call from its leader, Douglas Ross, for Mr Johnson to resign, a call backed by most of his colleagues at Holyrood and, according to Savanta ComRes, by three-fifths of those who voted Conservative last May. More strategically, it led to attempts (see here and here) to revive the longstanding debate within the party about whether it should seek a more distant relationship with the party south of the border. The party evidently feared that its electoral fortunes were at risk of being compromised by the public reaction to the ‘partygate’ allegations.

This was for good reason. Four polls of Holyrood or Westminster vote intention conducted since the ‘partygate’ allegations first emerged before Christmas, have on average put the party on just 19%. True, that only represents a one point drop on the equivalent figure (20%) for the previous four polls. However, whereas before ‘partygate’ the Conservatives were still narrowly ahead of Labour on 19%, now the party is running three points behind.

As a result, the party’s position as the second largest party north of the border, a position that it has enjoyed at every election since 2016, is now seemingly under threat in the local elections scheduled for the beginning of May. Even before ‘partygate’ those elections looked like being difficult for the party, as in the last elections in 2017 it recorded what was by far and away its best local election performance of the devolution era, winning 25% of the first preference vote and more than doubling its number of councillors. But that was achieved at a time when the party was on average standing at 30% in the polls, and went on to win 29% in the Westminster general election the following month, well ahead of where the party stands now. In short, the party appears to be at serious risk of suffering significant losses in May.

‘Partygate’ has, of course, abated for a while at least in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, not only has Mr Ross reversed his call for Mr Johnson to resign (and today’s poll suggests that many Conservative voters have changed their mind too), but also the Prime Minister is appearing in person at this weekend’s conference. Yet Mr Johnson remains an unpopular leader. While at -51, his net favourability rating in today’s Scotsman poll is better than the figure recorded in January (when just 14% viewed him favourably and 77% unfavourably, giving him a net score of -63) it is still worse than it was in October, when his net score stood at -43, or indeed in any other poll since Savanta ComRes first asked the question in December 2020. This evidence is consistent with GB-wide polling that has suggested that while there has been some improvement in the Prime Minister’s popularity, the Ukraine crisis has not resulted in any substantial ‘rally to the flag’ boost to his popularity.

Meanwhile, Mr Ross does not provide a counterbalance to the Prime Minister’s personal unpopularity. While he is less unpopular than the Prime Minister, it is still the case that around twice as many regard him favourably than unfavourably – in contrast to the position of his Scottish Labour counterpoint, Anas Sarwar. Even among those who voted Conservative in last May’s devolved election, only around a half say they regard Mr Ross favourably. While he is widely regarded as intelligent, only around one in six think he is charismatic and one in four that he understands ordinary people.

Doubtless much will be heard at this weekend’s conference about the case for Scotland remaining part of the Union, as the polls suggest that supporters of that point of view at most only narrowly outnumber those who back independence. Conservative spokespersons often criticise the SNP for their ‘obsession’ with independence. Yet the party is as dependent as the SNP on the issue’s continued prominence in voters’ minds. Recent polls indicate that nearly all of the party’s support continues to come from those who currently oppose independence, just as was the case last May.

At the same time, however, the party is less effective than the SNP at securing the support of those who back their side of the constitutional argument. Most Yes supporters currently back the SNP, whereas the Conservatives command the support of only just over 40% of those who are opposed to independence.

The party’s appeal is constrained by two forces. The first is its close association under Boris Johnson with Brexit. Only around one in eight (12%) of those who voted Remain currently support the party, compared with over a third of Leave supporters. Meanwhile, analysis of British Election Study data shows that in last May’s election the party was three times more popular among No supporters who back Brexit (58%) than it was among No supporters who opposed Brexit. And, of course, in Scotland Brexit is a relatively unpopular cause.

Secondly, maintaining Scotland’s position in the Union is the only issue on which the party has a high profile in voters’ minds. Whereas 37% say they trust the Conservatives most ‘to protect the Union’, on no other issue, including the economy and the standard of living, do more than one in five trust the party most. If the party is to win the battle with Labour for the support of No voters in May it needs to start convincing voters it can be trusted on much more than 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.