What will the election result in Scotland mean for the battle between Sturgeon and May?

Posted On: 
20th April 2017

Is the general election campaign in Scotland a “straight fight” between the SNP and the Conservatives? James Millar reports on how the debate is shaping up north of the Border 

Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions this week
PA Images

Brenda from Bristol won the internet with her reaction to the news of another general election when she told a BBC reporter: “You’re joking!”

Yet Scottish politicians, journalists and voters would be forgiven for rolling their eyes at her. She doesn’t know she’s born when it comes to trips to the polling station.

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In the last three years, Scots have elected MEPs and voted on independence in 2014, then a general election in 2015, a Scottish parliament election and the EU referendum last year followed by council elections across the country next month and Theresa May’s snap poll five weeks after that.

Imagine Brenda from Bristol’s reaction to that.

And yet the coming contest has still thrown up something new.

For the first time in history, it’s a face-off between the SNP and the Conservatives in Scotland. The SNP’s Westminster leader and election supremo in previous years, Angus Robertson admitted as much at the first Prime Minister’s Questions after the election was called. “We look forward to the straight fight between the Scottish National Party and the Tories,” he said.

Though he might not be relishing the contest in his own Moray seat so much where he will face a genuine challenge from the Conservatives for the first time. Moray came closest to bucking the trend in Scotland at last year’s EU referendum, the Remain side won there by just a few hundred votes. And the Tories will look to exploit the difference between an electorate open to Brexit and their MP who is enthusiastically pro-EU.

Scotland’s north east – with its large fishing industry in particular fuelling support for Brexit – sums up the Tories’ change in fortunes. In 2015 they hoped to pick up some seats there, just two years later they expect to win in a clutch of constituencies. Resources are already being targeted at Stuart Donaldson’s West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine seat and they are eyeing up Callum McCaig in Aberdeen South, too. McCaig’s often talked up as a successor to Robertson as leader of the Westminster group. The Tories will be cock-a-hoop in the unlikely event they could unseat both Robertson and his heir apparent.

The other parties’ big beasts in Scotland may be more vulnerable.

The SNP would love the symbolism of defeating Labour’s last man standing in Scotland, Ian Murray in Edinburgh South, and they’ll pick their candidate carefully as a result. Publicly, Murray is bullish about retaining his seat. In private, many in the party fear a wipeout.

They are going to get another pounding at the council elections taking place on 4 May, providing a narrative of decline it will be nigh impossible to turn around in the few weeks before the general election.

No one is talking about Scottish Labour winning back seats. As the electoral tectonic plates have shifted in Scotland, the party has been crushed. Brexit has had a similar effect in tearing up the territory in England but Jeremy Corbyn has made little or no effort to tap up Murray for his expertise on surviving in the new landscape.

However, perversely, some in the SNP fear Labour. They are now an unknown enemy. The SNP knows to brand the Tories as Westminster rightwingers and the Conservatives know to hold up the prospect of another independence referendum to shepherd unionist voters their way.

As one SNP MP told me: “For the first time in my life we are not even thinking about attacking Labour. If they could find some competent candidates they could exploit that.”

Current Scottish secretary David Mundell and his immediate predecessor Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael both have majorities of under 1,000.

Carmichael’s Orkney and Shetland seat is reliably Lib Dem and he’ll be confident of growing a majority deflated by the 2015 “Nicileaks” scandal – when he had to confess to letting a special adviser leak a memo claiming Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to win – last time out.

The SNP will not be giving too much energy to the Northern Isles. As one senior figure told me: “Last time was our best shot and it showed that the rocks will melt into the sea before Orkney and Shetland stop voting Liberal.”

Mundell’s had an increased profile as Scottish secretary. He’s known to be confident of getting elected for a fourth time but SNP sources say his seat is their best chance of increasing the party’s tally in 2017.

It’s the impact of the last independence referendum and Nicola Sturgeon’s recent call for a new one that have altered the political landscape so in Scotland.

The 2015 result that saw Labour and the Lib Dems hammered was driven partly by a desire among the two parties’ previous voters to punish them for getting in bed with the Conservatives. But it was also a matter of simple numbers. While the unionist vote splintered, the 45% who’d backed independence in 2014 voted SNP in 2015.

The Tories have been most nimble in responding and now portray themselves as the party of the union, chasing tactical voters who want to stop the SNP.

Sources are cagey about expectations in Scotland – “somewhere between one and 10” is the best prediction I could garner. The local elections on 4 May might give an indication of where they could win but their confidence ahead of 8 June is driven by polls showing most Scots don’t want a second independence referendum.

The question is what the 2017 result will mean for the battle between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May over holding what’s become known as “indyref2”.

Assuming May is still PM in June, will she be armed with a manifesto promise not to allow an independence referendum for the duration of the new parliament? If she can take the Tories past a grand total of one Scottish seat for the first time in 25 years, will she take that as an endorsement of her decision to stonewall Sturgeon? Perhaps the prime minister will go all proportional representation and tot up the number of votes cast for anti-independence parties as evidence she’s listening to what Scots really want?

If the SNP wins even more seats, will that make Sturgeon’s demand irrefutable? She’s says May’s opposition to indyref2 will “crumble to dust” if so. And if they lose seats, does that weaken Sturgeon’s mandate to hold a new poll? The first minister’s already looked to head off this last scenario by pointing to her Holyrood manifesto last year and the endorsement of the Scottish parliament for her plans in a vote last month.

While the overall result of the election looks a given – a Tory majority in Westminster, the SNP keeping the vast majority of seats in Scotland – there are so many complex factors at play in Scotland courtesy of the two referendums of 2014 and 2016 and the demands for another on independence that it is sure to be a fascinating campaign.