The battle for political dominance in Moray re-ignited last night as the Conservatives claimed the region could no longer be considered an SNP stronghold and was now firmly “within our sights”.
The Nationalists survived a scare at last week’s election after coming closer than ever to losing their heartland seat at Holyrood.
Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead was returned to serve a third term, but witnessed his majority collapse from 10,944 to 2,875, as backing for the Tories soared.
The Moray MSP brushed off the fright last night, saying that it was a “phenomenal achievement” for the party to secure almost half the votes in the region.
He also played down claims that his central role in the row over delayed CAP payments to farmers had cost him support in the region.
But his defeated opponent Douglas Ross – a local councillor who was elected to Holyrood on the Highlands and Islands list after missing out in the constituency – suggested the tide was turning in the area.
He said: “In terms of Moray, it was one of the biggest increases in the Conservative vote across Scotland, and it has certainly taken the seat from being an SNP stronghold to being well within the Conservatives sights.
“Perhaps SNP politicians have been taking Moray for granted. If the public feel that way then we will be ready to step in.”
Mr Ross added: “I would say it is not just in Moray. What we saw in rural constituencies across Scotland was a shift from the SNP towards the Conservatives, and Ruth Davidson has been clear that we will stick up for people in rural areas.”
The Conservative claimed in the wake of the result last Thursday that Mr Lochhead’s “inaction” about CAP payments was behind the Tory surge.
But the Scottish Government minister denied the suggestion last night.
He said: “In government, lots of difficult issues confront you. No doubt, a mix of factors influenced the result.
“But the absolute number-one issue that has lead to the increase of the Conservative vote is the very clear move of No voters to get behind them.
“The SNP got nearly half of the vote in Moray and has broken records across the region, which is a phenomenal achievement.”
Although the MSP’s majority was drastically cut in the poll, the actual number of votes he received fell only marginally, dropping from 16,817 in 2011 to 15,742 this year.
With the election of Mr Lochhead, Mr Ross and fellow Conservative Edward Mountain, on the Highland list, Holyrood now has three representatives residing in Moray for the first time.
Mr Lochhead said: “These are now changed days having three MSPs in Moray. While the two Conservatives will have responsibilities across the Highlands and Islands, I have a mandate from the people of Moray alone.
“I’m proud of the track record that has been delivered in Moray in terms of investment and working together to improve the quality of services for local communities.
“The more voices shouting for Moray the better. While I will be dedicated to Moray as the local MSP, I’m sure the two Conservatives will like-wise be aware of local issues given that they live here, albeit representing the Highlands and Islands.”
“I’ve very excited to be heading back. It’s going to be radically different with so many fresh faces.”