Andy Maciver

Sunak won’t be much help to the Scottish Tories

Rishi Sunak and leader of the Scottish Conservative party Douglas Ross (Getty Images)

The first few days of this general election campaign have been characterised by Rishi Sunak’s dismal campaign management. From wet suits and sinking ships, his whistlestop tour of the four nations seemed more like a box-ticking exercise than anything else.

The key to any Tory success is to augment the notion that independence is still a threat

A prime minister from the Conservative and Unionist party must find some way to appeal to Northern Ireland and Scotland, the two parts of that union which in the longer term still represent a realistic flight risk. It was, however, hard not to reflect on Sunak’s irrelevance in these parts of the UK. Irrelevant in Northern Ireland because the party – making up less than 1 per cent of the vote – effectively does not participate. And the UK prime minister is irrelevant in Scotland because the battle ahead of his Scottish counterpart Douglas Ross and his party bears almost no resemblance to the fight facing Sunak.

In England, Sunak is attempting (almost certainly with futility) to fend off Labour across the north and the Midlands and the Lib Dems across London and the south, all the while looking over his shoulder at the vote share being eaten by Reform. Precisely none of these conditions exist in Scotland. The party’s six seats are all two-horse races with the SNP, and they need cooperation with Labour and Lib Dem voters, not conflict. Ross will shed no tears if Sunak decides to stay south of Hadrian’s Wall for the remainder of the campaign – he doesn’t need him, and indeed his presence will inevitably do more harm than good.

The Scottish party is likely to come out of this election looking relatively healthy. The presumed collapse in seats in England is highly unlikely to be replicated in Scotland, purely because the substantial slip in Tory vote share (of 7-10 per cent in most polls) is aped by the slide of the SNP’s vote. So, while the loss of vote share would be devastating in a proportional representation election of the sort that the party will fight at Holyrood in 2026, in this first past the post election Ross’s seats are likely to remain blue. What’s more, he may even add to the tally. In addition to the six the Tories hold in the south and the north east, a relatively good night for the Tories and a fairly poor night for the SNP may put seats in Ayrshire, Perthshire and Moray into play. 

The key to any success the Tories have on 4 July is to augment the notion which has been the key to their success since 2014 – that independence is still a threat, and that unionist voters must vote for the party most likely to beat the SNP. This dynamic has been a silver bullet for the party at every election since 2016, when significant numbers of transactional unionist voters, not ideologically at home in the Tories, cross the Conservative box because they believed that was the best way to repel a second independence referendum. They did it again in 2017, 2019 and 2021. Success is dependent on voters in those 6-10 seats doing the same again.

Doing so would have more to do with Salmond and Sturgeon than with Sunak and Starmer. Understanding Scotland’s voting dynamic over the last decade requires an understanding of the mutually assured destruction which exists between the SNP and the Tories. To energise their vote, both need a second independence referendum to be on the table. The trouble is, reality has turned to myth. Privately, both leaderships know that a second referendum is a fantasy. With the SNP’s support tanking, with the Supreme Court having ruled that the Scottish parliament does not have authority to call a referendum, and with the Labour party ascending and promoting its own unionist credentials, there is in reality no route map whatsoever to a second referendum, far less a successful one. 

The fight for independence may not be completely dead – polling shows support for ‘Yes’ remains around 50 per cent – but at the moment it is at least cryogenically frozen. Anas Sarwar should say this to anyone who will listen, for he is the winner from the new reality. But for Douglas Ross, such an enlightenment would be a mortal wound.