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With opinion polls divided on whether the SNP will win an overall majority of seats in the new Holyrood parliament, the final outcome is likely to remain unclear until all the list seats – the last part of the jigsaw – are allocated on Saturday afternoon.
The SNP’s Angus Robertson remains the favourite to win Edinburgh Central, which former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson won last time by just 610 votes.
But there was said to have been “massive tactical voting” in two other key seats, which is likely to see Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton retain Edinburgh Western and Labour’s Daniel Johnson hold on in Edinburgh Southern despite a strong Nationalist challenge.
Ballot boxes from all over the city were sealed when polls closed at 10pm yesterday and taken to the Royal Highland Centre where they were guarded overnight ready for the count to begin at 9.30am.
A normal overnight count was ruled out because of Covid precautions, which mean there far fewer counting staff and the process will be spread over two days. Only three of Edinburgh’s six seats – Central, Southern and Western – are counting today, with results expected roughly around teatime. Linlithgow and Midlothian North & Musselburgh are also counting today. The other Edinburgh seats and Almond Valley will count tomorrow and the Lothian list seats – which help the make-up of the parliament reflect the parties’ share of the votes – can then be allocated.
Conservatives, in particular, have concentrated their efforts this time on winning list votes and encouraging their supporters to use their constituency vote to back the candidate most likely to stop the SNP.
One Conservative source said: “In Edinburgh there is massive tactical voting. Tory voters are going for Daniel Johnson probably on a bigger scale than in the last election and probably in a more pronounced way than for Ian Murray in a Westminster election, but for the list votes they are solidly Conservative. And in Western, Conservatives are giving Alex Cole-Hamilton pretty massive support in the constituency vote.
"People in Western and Southern want to stop the SNP and are prepared to vote for whoever they think is the best person to do that.”
Some Tory insiders claim the result in Central is looking closer than originally expected. “Conservative Central Central Office never thought it was particularly winnable with Ruth going,” said one. “And it hasn’t had a lot of extra resources for the campaign, but now apparently they think it’s very close. I think it would still be a surprise if the SNP don't take it, but maybe not by much.”
Another source said it was “a big ask” for Central Tory candidate Scott Douglas to hold onto the seat which Ruth Davidson had won as a “celebrity politician.
Daniel Johnson, who won Southern for Labour last time with a majority of 1,123 over the SNP, said the areas he was relying on had seen a good turnout. “There were queues at some polling stations – though that might be due to social distancing rather than huge numbers – but we were getting a positive response from members of the public.”
His Tory opponent Miles Briggs, who is also top of his party’s Lothian list, said he had seen queues outside some polling stations and people who had intended to vote on their way to work deciding not to wait. “When I was at Stockbridge library, the queue was all the way round the back,” he said. “Some people gave up, but I hope they tried again later.”
And Edinburgh Central SNP hopeful Angus Robertson reported a queue of people from Dalry Road round to Orwell Terrace waiting to vote in heavy rain around 6.30pm. He said: “If we are able to turn out the vote we can win the election in Central.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton said he felt pleased about the way the election had gone in Western. “We’re getting switchover from every other party including the SNP.”