GE24 Party Profile: Scottish Conservatives


The Scottish Conservatives find themselves in an incredibly odd position in this election. Certainly, they are sharing in many of the woes that the party is experiencing UK-wide. Their support has plummeted, though Rishi Sunak appears to be trying his best to get overall support to equal Conservative backing in Scotland. If I believed in such things, I could almost be convinced that someone at Scottish Conservative HQ wished on a monkey’s paw for their support to stop lagging so far behind the UK total.

However, whereas in the English majority of seats there’s no getting away from the fact that the Conservatives are the Government, in Scotland they are one of the governments. That removes some of the responsibility, or at least muddies it (delete as appropriate to your constitutional view), for the many undoubted issues Scotland currently faces. The SNP are therefore het for the blame on some of these, and are themselves shedding huge amounts of support at the moment.

That could make key SNP vs Conservative constituencies across Scotland, where neither Labour nor the Lib Dems have a chance, into a competition to find out which of the two local voters are the least scunnered with. Although the constitutional question will come into play too, as I investigated in this piece, it’s not as simple as assuming Labour and Lib Dem voters will rush to shore up Conservative MPs in preference to the SNP. Constitutional politics seems to have much less of a hold over voters this election, and politicians and commentators alike may end up surprised by some of the implications of that.

One thing that won’t have helped voter’s attitudes to the party have been the events of recent days. You don’t need to be a seasoned political advisor to know that deselecting a sick MP at the last minute so you can stand in his seat, as Douglas Ross did to David Duguid, would be met with outrage and disgust at the best of times. Yet that’s exactly what Ross did. The fact this simultaneously meant going back on his pledge to stand down from Westminster and focus on Holyrood only made matters worse. Within days, Ross was forced to announce he would stand down as both Scottish Conservative leader and, if elected MP, as MSP. This is not generally what you want to happen less than a month out from a major election.


Note: For simplicity, this section only looks at elections starting from 2005, which was when the previous boundaries came into effect. Notably, this included a significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats from 72 to 59, correcting a historic over-representation that was no longer felt necessary following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Vote Shares

The story of the Scottish Conservatives from their formal birth from the old Unionist Party in the 60’s through the rest of the 20th century was one of near constant decline. Only in 1979 did they have a meaningful increase in support, but by 1997 that had eroded so much that they were famously wiped out in Scotland. That set the stage for the period tracked in the chart above. Although the Conservatives won the most votes in England at every election within this period (even very narrowly in 2005, though Labour still won a majority of English seats), in Scotland they languished in fourth place up to and including 2015, when they recorded their worst vote share yet, albeit they were the least negatively impacted of the Pro-Union parties that year.

Yet the constitutionalisation of Scottish politics would offer the party an enormous opportunity after 2015. Positioning themselves as the most ardent defenders of the Union, and the most effective force to stand against the dominant SNP, had worked wonders at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, and that carried through to the snap election in 2017. Against a backdrop of Theresa May’s misjudgement costing the party its overall majority, in Scotland they nearly doubled their vote share. That would largely hold into the second snap in 2019, though they once again went against the UK grain by dropping slightly.

At time of writing, the BBS poll average for the Conservatives (last updated on the 10th of June) was 15.0%, representing a loss of two-fifths of their vote compared to 2019. This would also be their second worst ever Westminster vote share if replicated on the day.

Seat Shares (Total)
Seat Shares (Categorised)

Although the Conservatives only had to endure one election with the embarrassment of zero Scottish MPs (a result of an abysmal voting system they themselves support), they had to trudge on for a fair while with just one. The same sole MP, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale’s David Mundell, was elected in all of 2005, 2010 and 2015. This caused particular angst in 2010, given the party’s success south of the border. I distinctly remember after the election, sat in my first ever rented flat, watching a lot of very po-faced Scottish Conservatives being interviewed by Sally Magnusson about why it was they still couldn’t win anything at all here.

With that 2017 backlash against the SNP however, the Conservatives finally made a breakthrough. A large part of this was built on stunning victories over the SNP in their historic strongholds, prising 3 seats the party had held for three decades from their grasp. Most notable amongst these was Moray, which had been the seat of the SNP’s Depute and Westminster group leader, Angus Robertson. These were accompanied by almost all of the other Mid/North East seats, the whole South, plus a couple of the Urban Affluent categorised constituencies.

Having established a bit of a pattern of going counter-cyclical to their English counterparts, the 2019 election that handed the party a significant UK-wide majority saw them lose more than half of their seats. Although they held onto two of the long-SNP seats, including soon-to-be-leader Douglas Ross’ Moray seat, they lost the other and most of their Mid/North East clutch, as well as their urban footholds.

Consistent across this period has been that the Conservatives haven’t picked up a single Central Belt/Urban constituency, though they weren’t entirely absent from the actual Central Belt as they won the Urban Affluent seat of East Renfrewshire in 2017. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy to a certain degree, as part of the conditions for me to classify a constituency as Urban Affluent is a recent-ish history of Conservative representation!

Possible Outcomes

Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.

Good Result

As stated earlier, the Scottish Conservatives are in a weird space. Whereas we’ll all be watching English Conservatives dropping like flies on the 4th of July, it’s not at all unlikely that the Scottish Conservatives hold all of their seats, or even that they might gain one or two. If that was the case, it’d make them proportionally the largest Scottish bloc within the Westminster group in a very long time.

That is in essence what a good result for the Scottish Conservatives looks like. If they hold steady, they can be pretty happy. If they gain any seats from the SNP – keep an eye on both of the Perthshire-inclusive seats especially – that’ll be an extremely good result. In that context it almost doesn’t matter what their vote share is, as who cares that much about losing ground if it doesn’t actually cost you any MPs? Well, the largely proportionally elected MSP group should, but that’s a problem for two years down the line.

Bad Result

A bad result is therefore pretty easy. If they don’t hold steady, if they can’t maintain the comparative strength recent projections have suggested, they’re in trouble. The silver lining they are banking on is being able to say they held fast against a UK-wide tide sweeping Labour to office, whilst glossing over the fact that their opponents here weren’t Labour but the SNP. Losing any seats at all would be bad, but there’s enough uncertainty as to how voters might react to a choice between the SNP and Conservatives and those recent destabilising events within the party that it’s not impossible they lose all of their seats.

Less for the party and more for him personally, losing Aberdeenshire North and Moray East, the seat at the centre of Ross’ sudden downfall, would be catastrophic. It has become crystal clear, if it wasn’t already apparent, that Ross would much prefer to be at Westminster than Holyrood. If he fails to be re-elected as an MP, he will be effectively marooned in a parliament everyone knows he doesn’t want to be in, surrounded by people who are extremely unhappy with him on his own benches, and who are besides themselves with mirth at his misfortune on the opposing benches. Forget losing the leadership, those are the kind of circumstances that become career ending.

Apologetic affability, or constitutionally combative?

It’s perhaps worth an additional section on the longer term consequences of those “destabilising events”, discussed a bit in the intro. It’s an absolutely incredible self-inflicted wound for the Scottish Conservatives that Douglas Ross is a dead leader walking for the rest of this campaign. Whilst potential successors are likely to keep formal announcements until after the election in the name of party unity, it’d be astonishing if they don’t start using this opportunity to heighten their profile and burnish their credentials in advance. Once they are unleashed after the vote, it’ll be fascinating to see what directions prospective leaders want to pull their party in.

I try to be rather careful about what I say on Ballot Box Scotland, not least because I quite like party leaders to find value in my work and give me the odd fundraising retweet. As Ross is now departing though, I feel I can risk a certain degree of honesty in saying he was been a notably… different leader to his predecessors. Short-lived though his leadership was, Jackson Carlaw seems like the kind of person that not just I, but more importantly opposing party leaders, could sit down and have a coffee with. Likewise, a pint with Ruth Davidson (a diet cola for me, thanks, Ruth), or afternoon tea with Annabel Goldie. The late David McLetchie’s leadership is before my time, though by all accounts he was well-liked across the chamber.

Certainly, you could imagine some very forthright exchanges of views between those leaders and their opponents, but each also had an air of affability. They all gave the sense that whilst you might be utterly opposed to their politics, you could at least have a perfectly pleasant conversation with them personally. Douglas Ross has never given that impression. Not in the slightest. He has been without a doubt the most resolutely and aggressively partisan figure to head up any Scottish party in my time.

You may wonder what that has to do with politics, and the answer is everything. We have a proportionally elected parliament in Scotland, where in order to meaningfully achieve anything, parties need to work together across their various divides. A combative, argumentative, viscerally oppositional approach may work at Westminster, it may even play well amongst core voters, but it doesn’t work to actually advance an agenda at Holyrood. The question for his successors is do they continue in that style, or do they seek a return to the tradition of almost apologetically affable Scottish Conservative leaders?

An argument could be made it wasn’t simply the consensual nature of Holyrood that prompted that style of leadership, but the realities of seemingly terminal decline. Every leader before Ross got their start in national politics in a period when the Scottish Conservatives continued to be deeply disliked and lacking any real prospect of recovering. Perhaps some personal charm was a necessary characteristic, a tool even, to make it through those years, softening the image of the party enough that people weren’t as actively and severely hostile to them.

Ross however first made it to Holyrood in the post-referendum 2016 revival. He similarly experienced success unseen for two decades when elected to Westminster the next year. Constitutional partisanship was at its peak at these elections, and the party was flush with the confidence of not being on the bottom for the first time in 20 years. It may be that experience hard-wired him towards his combative approach. If that is the case, will any of his likely successors even be able to break free of that mould, given that some of the most likely only made it into Holyrood in 2021? We’ll see, but there’s the small matter of the general election to get out of the way first.

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
(About Donations)