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by Kirsteen Paterson
27 June 2024
Reform UK: How Nigel Farage could derail the Conservative vote in Scotland

Nigel Farage on the campaign trail | Alamy

Reform UK: How Nigel Farage could derail the Conservative vote in Scotland

At the turn of the year, few eyelids were batted when Reform UK declared its intention to stand “everywhere” in Scotland.

But as the general election nears, it has candidates in all 57 areas and it seems that Nigel Farage’s party is set to eat into Tory margins and potentially cost them the chance to capitalise in key seats, including in the north east seat where Douglas Ross is standing.

Two polls published on the same day have given Farage something to smile about in Scotland, even though the country is, in the words of former leader Richard Tice, a “dangerous” place for him and one in which he is unlikely to campaign.

That comes more than a decade after Farage left an Edinburgh pub under police escort as protesters thronged outside. And it comes during a campaign in which English events have seen Farage pelted with items including a milkshake and a coffee cup.

A Survation poll for The Herald and Ballot Box Scotland has put support for Reform at eight per cent, a level that nudges them above the Lib Dems, who are on seven per cent, and gives them almost three times the level of recorded for the Scottish Greens (three per cent).

And a Savanta poll for The Scotsman was broadly similar, with Reform on six per cent, giving them the backing of one in four of those who voted Tory in 2019.

The level is not enough for Reform to secure a swathe of seats on 4 July, but it is enough to take a bite out of support for their nearest rivals, the Scottish Conservatives. And both surveys, conducted independently, have put Ross’s party at 14 per cent, a result which would be a record low for the party.

For votes to be lost to Reform, which paints itself as being anti-establishment, will mean much soul-searching for the Tories. But there is perhaps little surprise in the picture now being painted. And that’s not only because the Scottish Conservative campaign has hit so many bumps in the road to the general election – the watery announcement, the D-Day debacle, the betting scandal, to name a few.

Reform UK’s previous incarnation, the Brexit Party, came second in Scotland in the EU elections of 2019, winning 14.8 per cent of the vote. In that contest the Tory vote collapsed to a share of 11.6 per cent, with Labour – which lost two MEPs – down to 9.3 per cent. Reform’s result was dwarfed by that of the SNP, which took 37.7 per cent, but the fact remains that it was a result which showed that the party, then led by Farage, could be seen by voters in Scotland as an attractive alternative to larger, longer-established players.

“There’s a huge message here, massive message here,” Farage said at the time. “The Labour and Conservative parties could learn a big message from tonight, though I don’t suppose that they actually will.”

Of course, the circumstances before us today are removed from those at the time of that vote. But parallels can be drawn with the loss of confidence in the Conservatives, as seen under Theresa May in 2019, and that now being experienced under Rishi Sunak.

In April 2024, just weeks before he would announce the election, Sunak’s approval ratings were equal to the worst of those seen for John Major in 1994 and Jeremy Corbin in 2019. And in an Ipsos poll delivered this week, 72 per cent of UK voters questioned said they dislike the Conservatives, marking a record high.

These aren’t survivable scores and it is surely inevitable that the Tories will soon be out of power, with Sunak looking for a new job.

And we already know that a change of leadership is to come for the Scottish Conservatives, with Douglas Ross taking the unprecedented step of announcing his resignation during an election campaign. That followed news that it would be Ross, not incumbent David Duguid, who would be the Conservative candidate for Aberdeenshire North and Moray East – a move which rankled with many within the party.

Still, psephologist Sir John Curtice has said Ross “must be worried that yet another poll has put his party at 14 per cent”, and anyone eyeing up the vacancy is surely calculating their odds of building things back up before the Scottish Parliament race in 2026.

Allan Faulds of Ballot Box Scotland says Ross’s battle to retain his selected seat “sits on a knife edge”, not only because of the drama around his candidacy but also due to the question of “how attractive Reform UK is in Scotland’s most pro-Brexit constituency”.

It is here that Reform UK, whose leader recently sparked fury by suggesting Russia was provoked by the EU and Nato into invading Ukraine, is expected to take the biggest bite out of Tory support and it’s understood that local activists are not confident that Ross will come out as the victor. But poll after poll reminds us that margins are slim in this election, with many seats considered too close to call.

While much analysis has focused on what that means for the SNP and Labour, the future of the Scottish Conservatives is about to be written. And in an election in which Reform has no seats to defend, it effectively cannot lose.

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