Nicola Sturgeon is overestimating the toxicity of Tories in Scotland – and could pay for it

Riding a wave. PA/Andrew Milligan

When it comes to Westminster elections, Scotland usually stages a one-horse race. This time, however, second place is attracting more attention than usual. Having already achieved the unthinkable and edged ahead of Labour to become the official opposition after the 2016 Scottish election, the Conservatives are on the march.

First came a spate of opinion polls predicting a handful of Tory MPs for the first time since the 1990s. Then the party more than doubled its share of councillors in Scotland in council elections on May 4, winning even in hitherto no-go areas in and around Glasgow. No wonder all the talk is about “revival” and even “rebirth”.

Commentators rightly identify the 2014 referendum as the trigger. Scottish politics realigned around the constitutional question after that polarising campaign, and the Tories – the most unambiguous opponents of independence – have become the party of choice for No voters. It looks a classic case of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

The puzzle is that almost everybody used to think this was impossible. For years, the Tory polling graph in Scotland was the flattest line in British politics. Whatever the ups and downs of other parties, the Tories were reliably anchored in the mid-teens. And a large majority of voters were convinced the party was opposed to Scottish interests, dating back to the ugly Thatcher years of poll tax riots and seemingly endless industrial closures.

The brand had been toxic for so long by 2011 that senior MSP Murdo Fraser contested that year’s leadership election promising to disband the party altogether – and only narrowly lost to current leader Ruth Davidson. So has there been a swift detoxification, or was the brand never quite as polluted as previously thought?

The toxicity tracker

One way to explore this is to use polls that ask how much people like parties on a scale from zero to ten. I’ve used this to calculate a simple “toxicity index” tracking the proportion of voters who gave the Tories a zero (“strongly dislike”) per the graph below. I’ve broken this into Yes and No referendum voters, and have been able to go back to pre-2014 as pollsters thankfully track voting histories.

Rob Johns

Of those who would go on to vote No in 2014, 31% expressed maximum dislike for the Tories in 2011. This was hardly a ringing endorsement but it did mean that seven in ten of these voters – some of them Conservatives, but many not – could find at least some small thing on the credit side of the ledger.

The effect of the referendum on No voters is clearly visible, however. By polling day in September 2014, the Conservatives were a long way to detoxification among this group, even while despised by an unprecedented proportion of Yes voters.

This polarising effect has much to do with the role of the Tories in the campaign arguments themselves. The Yes message equated the Union with Conservative governments and policies held to be at odds with Scottish values and interests. This clearly found its most receptive audience among those for whom the Tories were already toxic, and here the converts to independence were to be found.

By contrast, those voting No were effectively indicating that their dislike for independence trumped any strong feelings about the Conservatives. Those voters form the pool in which the Conservatives are now fishing quite successfully. It is not so much that the Tory brand is detoxified – even if there have been steps in that direction. Rather, the party is winning over more of those voters for whom it was never so toxic.

It’s Corbyn, stupid

At the same time, the recent downturn in the party’s toxicity index among even Yes voters signals that this is about more than vocal Tory opposition to Scottish independence. One of the points easily lost amid the constitutional debate is that, for many voters, elections remain primarily about choosing a government, and they are not particularly partisan about it.

In the UK election of 2015, with a hung parliament and strong Scottish nationalist presence widely expected, voting SNP was seen by many such voters as the best way to influence the Westminster government as part of a winning coalition. Given that 45% of people voted for independence in 2014 but 69% of voters agreed in April 2015 that the SNP having more influence in Westminster would be a good thing, that party clearly succeeded in reaching out to No voters to some extent. It duly won an incredible 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.

This time around, with little prospect of a hung parliament, this question of separate Scottish influence is less relevant. The swing No voters (and maybe even some Yes voters) are therefore choosing between the UK parties. And the polls place the Scottish electorate in line with the rest of Britain in regarding Theresa May’s Tories as a more competent option than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

The SNP 56 + 1 in 2015. PA/Danny Lawson

This raises interesting questions about SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy in presenting this as a “two-horse race” between the SNP and the Conservatives in which only an SNP vote can hold the Tories to account at Westminster. On the one hand, it should play well with Yes voters among whom the Tories remain widely reviled. On the other hand, it probably overestimates how toxic the Conservatives are – or indeed ever were – among No voters.

The SNP’s best hope of another near clean sweep is a divided opposition, not one increasingly unified around the staunchest opponents of independence. It might therefore be a preferable strategy for the party to focus on those left-right issues that divide Labour and Liberal Democrat from Conservative supporters.

Otherwise, with some of her party’s smallest majorities in seats where the Conservatives already look the likeliest challenger, Sturgeon could well be in for a more mixed night than in 2015. In determining the size of the Scottish Tory contingent sent to Westminster after June 8, tactics rather than toxins might win the day.