(Bloomberg) — Scottish Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Bowie strides between houses in the coastal town of Stonehaven, making quick work of delivering the first leaflets of his campaign for re-election.
The marathon-running former Royal Navy officer has been set a punishing schedule by his campaign manager: 12 hours a day, 7 days a week until the U.K. votes on Dec. 12. Despite defending a relatively comfortable majority of almost 8,000 ballots, Bowie knows he can’t afford to relax for a minute.
It’s testament to both the U.K.’s tumultuous politics and his party’s changing fortunes in Scotland that even a rising star of the last election’s intake like Bowie, who served as then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Parliamentary aide, is unable to take anything for granted this time around.
Nationally, the story of the 2017 election was one of May’s disastrous gamble that cost the Conservative Party its parliamentary majority and exacerbated the Brexit gridlock. In Scotland, however, a resurgent Conservative vote helped May to fend off Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and cling to power.
More than two years of Brexit-induced bitterness later, the political pendulum has swung back again and the Conservatives are once more fighting for their political survival in Scotland. The threat of a bad result carries big implications for May’s successor, Boris Johnson, whose central pledge to “get Brexit done” rests on a majority that is far from guaranteed, for all his lead in U.K.-wide polls.
“Virtually every seat in Scotland is marginal, including pretty much everything the Tories picked up in 2017,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and one of the U.K.’s leading electoral analysts, said in an interview. “You’d expect them to lose a fair chunk of that. It could easily be that they win not much more than 3 or 4 seats.”
Political dynamics are different in Scotland, where Conservatism is a minority view, Johnson is regarded as toxic, Brexit is opposed by a majority and the Scottish National Party prevails. That helps to explain why the Conservatives so cherish the 13 of Scotland’s 59 seats they won in 2017—the party had been on life support until then, with a solitary MP returned at the previous Westminster election.
Tory support is broadly concentrated in relatively affluent rural Perthshire, a southern band along the border with England and a cluster of seats in the north east that stretches from the Cairngorm mountains past ancient hill forts and medieval castles, fertile farmland and salmon-rich rivers to the North Sea oil city of Aberdeen. While the Brexit factor makes this election more unpredictable than ever across the U.K., polls suggest the Tories are ceding that hard-won ground to their main rivals, the pro-independence and anti-Brexit SNP that has dominated Scotland for the past decade.
“I really don’t think anyone feels safe; it’s all incredibly open,” Luke Graham, one of the Scots Tory MPs elected in 2017, said in an interview. “It will be a street-by-street battle.”
In 2017, the Conservatives benefited from a popular leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, whose down-to-earth appeal won over a swath of no-nonsense Scots voters and posed the first real challenge to Scotland’s first minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. An articulate opponent of leaving the EU who argues that Brexit bolsters the case for Scottish independence from the U.K., Sturgeon is possibly as much of a hate figure for Scots Tories as Johnson is for SNP voters.
Davidson—who campaigned against Brexit—has since quit her post, costing the party its main asset in Scotland. The Tories thus go into the election with a prime minister who polls badly north of the border while championing a Brexit deal that’s hugely unpopular with Scots who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Even those voters attracted by Brexit may not opt for a party that has failed to engineer the U.K.’s departure after three and a half years.
“Nobody in the Conservative Party can possibly believe we should have gone to the country without getting Brexit done, but we were at total stalemate,” said Colin Clark, who two years ago unseated Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader, Alex Salmond. Canvassing in his Gordon constituency, which includes the Trump International golf course, shows “that it’s close,” Clark said.
Conservative losses in Scotland could open the door to a Labour government led by Corbyn and supported unofficially by the SNP. Nationally the Tories hammer home the prospect that raises of a Socialist government, but in Scotland the greater significance is of another vote on Scottish independence as the price of informal SNP backing.
“If people want to keep Scotland in the union, they need to put their dislike of the PM and Brexit on one side,” said Paul Masterton, a Conservative MP whose majority over the SNP in Renfrewshire East, near Glasgow, is less than 4,000. “Stop the SNP, say no to another independence referendum, deliver a sensible Brexit.”
Undeterred by the autumn rain in Aberdeen last weekend, Davidson’s successor as leader, Jackson Carlaw, unveiled a billboard bearing Sturgeon’s image with her fingers in her ears. The message is meant to signify her determination to push on regardless for another independence referendum—despite losing the last one in 2014.
The Tories are “the only party people can now support who are going to be able to make Nicola Sturgeon listen,” Carlaw said in an interview.
With 35 Westminster seats and after more than 12 years running the semi-autonomous Scottish administration in Edinburgh, the SNP is the party to beat in Scotland. It currently has about 41% support to 21% for the Conservatives, according to polling compiled by whatscotlandthinks.org. Labour—the main opposition party nationally, and which dominated Scotland for most of the postwar period—has 19% and the Liberal Democrats 13%. The SNP placed second in every seat won by the Tories in 2017.
Sturgeon is ubiquitous in Scottish Conservative campaign literature, while Johnson is conspicuous by his absence. Just as the Tories are playing on fears of independence, so the SNP see Johnson as boosting their chances. A YouGov poll for the Times in September found that 58% of Scottish voters said Johnson was doing badly, and 67% said they thought he was untrustworthy.
“Boris is one of our main campaign assets at the moment,” said Stephen Flynn, the SNP candidate in Conservative-held Aberdeen South. “He’s an electoral gift to us.”
Flynn was handed another gift in his electoral race when the Tory incumbent, Ross Thomson, withdrew following allegations—which he denies—that he groped another male MP.
Next door in Andrew Bowie’s seat of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, which includes the Queen’s Scottish residence at Balmoral, SNP challenger Fergus Mutch is talking of rebellion.
The prime minister is “leading the U.K. off the precipice,” Mutch said near Dunnottar Castle, where Scotland’s crown jewels were hidden in the 17th century while Oliver Cromwell’s army laid siege. Johnson, he said, is “the embodiment of the broken Westminster system, which the SNP is determined to get rid of.”
The Liberal Democrats say they are contenders in the seat. For Bowie, though, it’s a clear two-way race between himself and the SNP. He says his party’s pledge of “an end to this mess and for the country to move on” can give him the edge.
The question for Bowie and his 12 fellow Scots Conservative MPs is the degree to which voters see the mess as one of the Conservatives’ own making.
As he strikes out briskly to deliver his leaflets, one resident points to the trash can in the corner of his garden, telling the MP’s campaign manager where to stick his flyer. Bowie is undaunted.
“It doesn’t happen as much as it used to,” he said.
–With assistance from Robert Hutton.
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