The voters Scottish Conservatives need to win over to succeed in May... and it's not Boris-backing Brexiteers

This piece was originally published in the i newspaper on Thursday, December 3, 2020

Michelle Ballantyne’s sudden resignation from the Scottish Conservatives last week triggered inevitable questions for the party just months out from a crunch election.

Nobody wants to lose MSPs mid-term, and following on from her fellow MSP Oliver Mundell quitting the shadow cabinet the week before, eyebrows were raised about internal morale.

With Ms Ballantyne’s departure came accusations from a pretty vocal minority that the party was abandoning Scotland’s 1m Brexit voters, and should really be embracing Boris Johnson’s premiership rather than being so publicly ashamed of it.

In fairness to the now independent South Scotland MSP, she’s been saying this proudly and repeatedly since her own leadership bid at the start of the year. She’s as wrong now as she was then.

If the Scottish Conservatives want to have a successful Holyrood election next May, it’s not the pro-Brexit working class vote it has to persuade.

It’s the sandstone-abiding, pro-EU middle-class voters who backed the party in 2016 and 2017 because they wanted the UK to stay together, but couldn’t stomach the idea of a hard Brexit, or in some cases any Brexit at all.

It’s a myth that the “red wall” revolution which occurred in England could have been replicated north of the border. That breakthrough was already made by Ruth Davidson years before.

In fact, one fascinating piece of internal analysis revealed more than half the voters of a heavily working class Ayrshire ward voted Conservative in 2019. That’s not where the problem was.

The argument also neglects the fact that the kind of people in the north of England who voted Conservative for the first time last year would likely be dyed-in-the-wool SNP supporters if they lived a couple of hundred miles to the north.

They might not like the comparison, but there’s barely a cigarette paper between a working-class SNP voter in Lanarkshire and their Brexity counterpart in Burnley.

The Scottish Conservatives certainly didn’t drop from 13 MPs to six last December because they didn’t embrace Boris enough – quite the opposite.

For many middle-class Scots, Brexit was the primary issue, and they would rather lend their vote to the passionately pro-EU Nicola Sturgeon, even if it meant they’d have to say no to her next time she asks a bigger question.

That, too, explained the SNP’s election strategy. One, talk about independence to rally the troops, generate some extra donations and persuade activists to go out door knocking and leafleting in the dead of winter.

Two, in the final two weeks, when the country wakes up to the fact there’s an election on, slam the brakes on separation chat and climb aboard a tour bus which reads “Stop Brexit” alongside a huge photo of the First Minister as if she were promoting a £5 Megabus deal from Glasgow to Brussels.

It was an inspired strategy and the reward was another stunning election victory.

So how do the Scottish Conservatives win some of those people back? It’s important that they do if they want to stop an SNP majority next year.

Such a win would lead to an imbued First Minister marching to Westminster with a fresh mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum, a mandate the UK Government would not be able to reject.

The people they need at the ballot box are these middle-class pro-Union voters, and whether or not they return to the fold probably depends on how leaving the EU plays out in the next few months.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will probably muddy those waters, which means the less said about European constitutional affairs in that period, the better.

Losing Ms Ballantyne – who was the most right wing of the 31 MSPs – will help that drive.

We will shortly see more moderate voices put forward, not least near-daily appearances from Douglas Ross.

And that’s good news for the party – he’s highly competent, holds the line brilliantly, and won’t make any gaffes.

His refereeing credentials (which political opponents envy despite pretending otherwise) help him break through to working class and urban Scotland, while his farming background and authentic teuchter accent buy him favour everywhere else.

Don’t expect to see too much of Ruth Davidson. She’s a big asset on the campaign trail, but there’s the obvious awkwardness of her campaigning in a production from which she is departing.

And now that Ms Ballantyne is off the stage completely, there’s less danger of party sources and disaffected candidates mouthing off about bad strategies and botched campaigning.

And what of Boris?

Regrettably, he can’t be banned outright, because that would become a “thing” in itself.

Two visits maximum, I’d say. One at the start and one a couple of weeks out from polling day, probably to a secretive factory or perhaps some kind of early-morning fishing establishment (assuming Brexit goes well for that group).

They cannot afford to see more of him than that. If the election is painted as a choice between Nicola and Boris, there’s only one person the public is going to choose.

Instead, we’ll probably see the visits of more palatable Conservatives from England, like the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Michael Gove will make a couple of calls to his home town of Aberdeen.

Theresa May might well appear – despite not being known as a terrific campaigner, she made repeated visits even before becoming Prime Minister, especially during the independence referendum campaign. She genuinely likes to help.

But ultimately this has to be a campaign fought and run in Scotland, as the 2016 one was. If Boris wants an election campaign to undermine and jeopardise, there are plenty of local government and mayoral elections in England running at the same time.

The pro-Brexit, pro-Boris vote – where it exists at all – will probably turn out for the Scottish Conservatives anyway, especially when they realise the extent to which the Union is at stake here.

And even if they don’t, there are far more numbers to be gained in middle Scotland among people who might feel betrayed at Brexit, but will be equally anxious about the prospect of Britain’s break-up.

Those people are there for the taking. A hapless Richard Leonard-led Labour party won’t be speaking to them, and – unless they live in a select few pockets – neither will the Liberal Democrats.

The fact some hard-right members and candidates are fleeing the scene makes success – whatever that looks like in the bonkers world of Scottish politics – all the more likely for Douglas Ross.