Scottish Conservatives face humiliation because they never courted Leave voters

Scottish Conservatives face humiliation because they never courted Leave voters

by Brian Monteith
article from Wednesday 22, May, 2019

IF THE RUNES are right Ruth Davidson’s version of how a modern Conservative Party should look is about to suffer an embarrassing humiliation at the hands of the Scottish electorate in this week’s European elections.

The latest Panelbase polling for the Sunday Times suggests the SNP, with 38 per cent support, is set to win as many as three of the six seats available in the Scottish ‘region’ of the UK’s representatives and that the Brexit Party and labour Party are tied on 16 per cent, with the Conservatives likely to lose their only seat, polling only 11 Per cent.

A more upsetting poll for Scottish Conservatives by YouGov and Datapraxis put the SNP on 38 per cent; the Brexit Party on an astonishing 20 per cent; the Greens on 11 per cent,  Scottish Conservatives and Labour on 10 per cent and Lib Dems on 7 per cent.

It is irrelevant that these EU elections should not be taking place because we should already be out of the EU. The point is that Davidson and her team should have been chasing the votes of SNP Brexit supporters from the get-go once the 2016 EU referendum result was dissected and understood. That she rejected this option from the beginning by continuing to promote the soft Brexit tropes of remainers is now about to come back to haunt her. If the Scottish EU elections turn out the way surveys suggest it will be a massive set-back for Davidson’s hope of winning the next Holyrood election and will thus put the Union at risk from continued SNP domination and a second referendum.

When the EU referendum was held 1,018,322 votes (38%) in Scotland were cast in favour of leaving the EU – larger than the 977,569 (37%) won by the SNP or the 757,949 votes (28.6%) garnered by the Scottish Conservatives in the 2017 general election. 

In the Holyrood elections held just before the EU referendum, (and which Davidson hopes to win next time round in 2021) the Conservatives polled 501,844 –  a good performance historically but representing only 22% of votes cast.  There is room for growth, but how?

Whichever way one looks at it the million-plus pool of leave voters was a tremendous opportunity for Davidson to expand the Conservative vote in future elections, especially given the SNP’s antipathy towards Brexit. It’s not as if the SNP vote has been firm; there have been divisions expressed in SNP ranks over Brexit and the loss of coastal seats to Conservatives demonstrated the SNP’s weakness.

A 2016 survey by the National Centre for Social research found that 36% of both SNP and Labour supporters, and even 26% of Liberal Democrats had voted to Leave the EU in Scotland. 

If the Scottish Conservatives are to prosper there are two things that need to be understood in designing a winning strategy. Firstly, growing organically is not enough, they must take votes from other parties; secondly, if leave-voting SNP supporters could be offered policies that strengthened Scotland’s self-government they might be attracted to hold their noses and give Davidson’s Tories a try.

It is often claimed after all, that Davidson has had some success in detoxifying the Conservative brand in Scotland. If that is indeed true then offering a platform of greater self-government based on powers returning from Brussels and coming to Edinburgh could be a winning hand. An example of this would be to champion the return of fisheries management as a devolved responsibility once the UK is able to leave the EU. The prospect of reviving the economic fortunes of Scotland’s coastal communities has undoubtedly played a role in convincing voters in once safe SNP constituencies to come over to the Conservatives. Why not build on that success and also find new issues that could offer similar gains from nationalists?

Likewise, the not insignificant number of Labour and Liberal Democrat leavers in the million-plus figure could also have been courted.  Articulating the use of welfare powers already granted by the Smith Commission (trumping the SNP’s failure to do so) together with an economic and industrial strategy designed to create jobs that only Brexit could allow (such as establishing freeports at Prestwick and on the Firth of Forth at Grangemouth and Rosyth) would surely have been seductive to left-of-centre leavers.

Sadly none of these policy options have been taken up. Instead the Scottish Conservative MPs and MSPs have (with a few notable exceptions) fallen into line by supporting the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Treaty and through coded messaging demonising Brexiteers in the party such as Boris Johnson.

It should be noted that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Treaty explicitly offers up the UK’s fishing grounds as a likely bargaining concession (it was originally promised that it would not be included, but was added at the eleventh hour). Her proposed irrevocable treaty also makes freeports a practical impossibility when it leads inevitably to a shadow customs union arrangement. Now, with Theresa May offering the possibility of a second referendum as a gambit to win MP’s support for her draft treaty the Scottish Conservatives look especially stupid – for all their leaflets in the EU elections say in big letters, “No more referendums”.

Worse still, for those defending Scotland’s continued full participation in the United Kingdom it completely undermines Ruth Davidson’s claim to be a devout unionist. How can a unionist of any colour accept that Northern Ireland should have its regulations for commerce set in Brussels and adjudicated by a foreign court while the rest of the UK can choose to set its own laws? How can a unionist accept that the only way Northern Ireland businesses might find democratic recourse to rules no longer pertaining in the rest of the UK is to seek redress by lobbying foreign politicians from the Irish state?

Davidson’s willingness to accept Northern Ireland should suffer a different settlement from the rest of the UK reveals a cynical inconsistency in her claim to make the maintenance of the union her top priority. The Union should be indivisible if it is to be of any value at all. Arguing that Scotland should enjoy exactly the same terms of leaving the EU as the rest of the UK presupposes that there is an indivisible United Kingdom. Davidson would abandon that indivisibility and thus opens the door for the SNP to claim Scotland can be treated differently – just as Sinn Fein has demanded Northern Ireland be treated differently too.

The public can see through the smoke screens and deceptions of politicians and it is therefore of little surprise to read that with the European elections coming up fast the Brexit Party is scooping up support from Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives – and undoubtedly from other parties too. The potential for the Brexit Party winning seats at Holyrood is now a tangible prospect, and possibly at Westminster before then if an early general election is held.

Brian Monteith is a Brexit Party candidate in North East England and a former Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament. Pictured is Louis Stedman-Bryce, the lead Scottish candidate of the Brexit Party.

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