Ian Swanson: Scottish Tories back to reality

Ruth Davidson performed well during the referendum campaign. Picture: John Devlin
Ruth Davidson performed well during the referendum campaign. Picture: John Devlin
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A year ago the Scottish Tories came to Edinburgh for their last big gathering before the referendum. 
 The independence vote went the way they wanted and their leader, Ruth Davidson, won plaudits for her part in the campaign.

On Friday, the Tories will be back at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre with just over ten weeks to go to the general election. They hope another positive result for the party will see David Cameron return to Downing Street.

But if the Conservatives do find themselves back in power after May 7, the Scottish Tories know it will be 
little thanks to them.

As delegates gather for the annual conference, sources say the party’s mood in the wake of the No victory is upbeat. But even the most 
optimistic projections do not have the Tories winning more than two or three seats north of the Border.

Unlike the referendum, where Conservative activists were able to enjoy being part of a winning team, the general election will confirm once more the party’s lack of appeal to Scottish voters.

Ms Davidson acquitted herself well during the referendum, putting a confident and well-argued case against independence and for the UK.

After some problems early in her leadership she has now established herself as a capable politician.

But as her predecessors discovered, a good performance does not guarantee electoral rewards. The Tories’ first Holyrood leader, the late Lothian MSP David McLetchie, was a formidable and effective debater and his successor, Annabel Goldie, was a popular personality. But neither was able to translate that into significantly more votes.

The Tories got their fingers burned at the last election in 2010 when they announced 11 target seats and ended up with just one MP.

This time they are not specifying a number. However, one source says: “We think we can pick up one or two extra seats, but realistically no more than that.”

And last week an embarrassing website blunder revealed a long list of “non-target” seats which included Edinburgh South and Edinburgh West, two seats in the Capital which the Tories used to hold and where they still have a good level of support.

The party tried to play down the significance of the list, but an insider describes it as a “pretty accurate” reflection of where the party was – or was not – putting its resources.

“The Edinburgh seats are getting no central support whatsoever,” the insider says.

“We have a good core of support in Edinburgh South and it would not be impossible to win if there was a three-way split, but the party centrally does not see it as being in contention.”

Tory canvassers claim they find an anger among many voters that the SNP is not willing to accept that “No means No” and say non-SNP voters are ready to unite behind the party most likely to defeat the Nationalists in any given seat – but the trouble is there are very few places where that means the Conservatives.

The two seats the Tories believe they have the best hope of winning are both Lib Dem-held – Michael Moore’s Borders seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk; and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, where Sir Robert Smith is MP.

While the parties debate the record of the current coalition and pundits speculate about a new one, it is ironic that if the Tories do make any gains in Scotland it will be because voters decide to punish the Lib Dems – for getting into bed with the Tories.