Signs of dramatic Tory revival causes new headache for Sturgeon’s Indyref 2 strategy

From the Sunday Times £

SNP set to lose 11 seats according to shock poll

The Panelbase survey of 1,029 voters in Scotland — the first Scottish poll since Theresa May called a snap election — points to a surge in support that would take the Conservatives to 33%, up 18 points from two years ago.

It amounts to their strongest showing north of the border since the days of Sir Edward Heath’s government in the 1970s before the steep decline associated with Margaret Thatcher and subsequent Tory leaders unpopular among Scots.

With the Tories on course to increase their Scottish representation at Westminster from one to 12, the SNP’s deputy leader Angus Robertson is one of several high-profile Scottish nationalist MPs who could be ousted.

In what would be a blow for Nicola Sturgeon and the independence movement, the SNP on 44% — down six points from its 2015 general election result — would emerge with 45 seats, 11 fewer than last time.

While that would be the SNP’s second best Westminster result, any losses and momentum shift could weaken Sturgeon’s hand in trying to persuade May to authorise a second independence referendum after May said it could undermine Brexit negotiations.

It comes after the SNP’s national executive ruled yesterday not to endorse two MPs, Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry, who now sit as independents, as general election candidates. Thomson withdrew from the SNP whip amid an ongoing police investigation into property deals revealed by The Sunday Times; and McGarry was charged last year over allegations of fraud.

The poll results, which support claims from senior Tories privately that they could win 10 seats, may explain why the SNP has devoted much time in recent days to targeting Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who enjoys high approval ratings.

She has come under heavy fire for refusing to condemn the UK government’s so-called child tax credit “rape clause”.

Labour, until relatively recently the dominant party in Scotland, faces its worst ever Scottish result. It would lose its last remaining Scottish seat with just 13% of the vote (-11), with the Tories defeating Ian Murray in Edinburgh South.

Coupled with council elections expected to be disastrous for the party in May, it would raise fresh questions about Kezia Dugdale’s leadership.

The Lib Dems on 5% (-3) would see their tally rise from one to two, with former equalities minister Jo Swinson beating the SNP’s John Nicolson, a former broadcaster.

Tory strategists are confident of gains as Scots who voted against independence in the 2014 referendum increasingly turn to their party to safeguard the Union. They also expect a bounce from Scots who voted to leave the EU and Davidson’s popularity.

The Brexit factor is a particular threat to Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader and elections guru, because his Moray constituency polled the most support in Scotland for leaving the EU last year.

With SNP support slipping three points since last month, he is a top Tory target, as are the SNP’s Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart and Treasury spokesman and East Lothian MP George Kerevan.

Support for Scottish independence itself, at 45%, is up a point on last month, but no higher than in 2014.

While, at 48%, the proportion who think there should be another independence referendum within the next few years is down two points.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said: “The Scots Tory revival continues apace – and is now on a scale that could threaten the SNP’s vice-like grip on Scottish representation on Westminster. It is not just the Tory stance on the Union that is attracting voters. So also, it seems, is its tough stance on Brexit.”

Doubtless Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, will be minded to claim that her party’s continuing advance shows Scotland is swinging against Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for independence. However, she would be wrong to do so.

At 45%, support for independence is up a point on last month and in line with the outcome of the 2014 referendum.

Meanwhile, at 48% the proportion who think there should be an independence referendum within the next couple of years is down only a couple of points.

What has been happening is that those who already back the Union have increasingly been switching to the Tories. When Panelbase polled last September, only 44% of those who voted “no” in the September 2014 referendum were backing the party. Now that figure stands at 55%. Conservative support among those who voted “yes” remains almost as minimal as ever.

It is not only the Tory stance on the Union that is attracting voters. So too, it seems, is its tough stance on Brexit.

Conservative support among those voted “leave” last year has increased from 33% last September to 53% now. Among the ”remainers”, it has barely risen — from 20% to 21%.

Scottish politics is becoming increasingly polarised between a pro-Union, pro-hard Brexit Conservative Party and a pro-independence, pro-soft Brexit SNP. And it is a development that is leaving less and less space for an increasingly beleaguered Labour Party.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London